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Could Losing Weight Ease Your Arthritis Pain?

Extra weight adds unnecessary stress on your joints. Find out if losing weight can help.

For 12 years, Robin Lutchansky spent most of her time in a wheelchair. The pain from her severe osteoarthritis, first diagnosed in her early 30s, made it difficult to walk more than short distances.

Then, a little over three years ago, Lutchansky found her way to a pain management clinic that taught her how to exercise -- first, teaching her how to walk again. Over the next three years, Lutchansky, now 51, gradually lost nearly 100 pounds with calorie reduction and exercise.

“I did it slowly. I started out just lifting 2-pound weights, and I walked in the pool every day,” she says.

Today, Lutchansky is out of the wheelchair and back at work as a public relations representative for a high-tech firm, and says that her daily pain levels have gone from an 8 or a 9 to a 1. “It’s amazing. It’s a new life. I had no idea it was possible.”

What Weight Does to Your Joints

If you are at all overweight, one of the best ways to reduce osteoarthritis pain is by taking off excess pounds. Being overweight increases the load that you put on your joints -- your knees, your hips, your ankle -- with every step you take.

“When we walk, when we go up and down stairs, or get into or out of a chair or car, we can put three to five times our body weight, and sometimes more, on the joints,” says Geoffrey Westrich, attending orthopedic surgeon and Director of Joint Replacement Research at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. “So if you’re 50 pounds overweight, you’re putting around 250 pounds of increased stress across your knees and hips.”

Over time, that extra weight makes you much more prone to developing arthritis and can cause arthritis to progress much more rapidly, leading to much more pain once it has developed.

Fortunately, the same principle works in reverse. “For every pound people lose, they lose 3 pounds of stress across their knee and 6 pounds of stress on their hip, on average,” says Westrich.

Small Steps, Big Changes

You don’t have to lose 100 pounds, like Lutchansky, to see a difference in your pain levels. C. Thomas Vangsness, Jr., MD, professor of orthopaedic surgery and chief of sports medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, says most of his arthritis patients who lose weight notice that their pain is diminishing after losing about 20 pounds.  

Jane Angelich, a 58-year-old California businesswoman, has lost 33 pounds on Weight Watchers.  

“What a difference!” she says. “It starts when I get out of bed in the morning. No more limping around and groaning for the first few minutes. Instead of finding excuses to sit on my couch instead of walking around, I now walk the equivalent of a 5k without any issues and can even function the next day!”

Losing weight cannot repair the damage that’s already been done to your joints by arthritis, but in addition to decreasing your pain, it can also help to slow down the further progression of the disease. One study found that knee osteoarthritis in obese men would decrease by 21.5% if they lost enough weight to be categorized as merely overweight; for women, arthritis would decrease by 31%.

“The damage is already done, and arthritis is a progressive process,” says Westrich. “But weight loss can be tremendously helpful in alleviating pain, allowing greater function, and prolonging the period of time before someone needs joint replacement surgery.”

And if you haven’t developed arthritis but you’re worried about it, losing excess weight can significantly lower your risk. If you’re significantly overweight, every 11 pounds you lose cuts your risk of developing arthritis by more than 50%.

Making It Happen

The best way to lose weight, any doctor will tell you, is to eat less, eat healthy foods, and exercise more. But while someone with arthritis can start to change their eating habits in pretty much the same way that someone without the disease can, having arthritis makes exercise a little more complicated.

High-impact exercise, like running, jogging, and aerobics, can put too much stress on the joints, so doctors recommend against these activities. “They can hasten the arthritis process and cause injury,” says Westrich.

Instead, Vangsness recommends that his patients pursue one of three types of exercise that are particularly well suited for people with arthritis:

  • Swimming
  • Cycling (especially on a recumbent stationary bike, which is easier on knees and hips than a standard bike)
  • Elliptical trainers

“These all get your heart rate up without putting any stress on the knee,” he says. “The buoyancy of water helps to alleviate pain during water exercise. And working out using a stationary bike or an elliptical trainer can help strengthen key muscles like the quadriceps. If your quadriceps are strong, that can cushion the ‘heel strike’ moment when you step forward while walking, and decrease pain as well.”

He adds that some of his extremely obese patients have gotten their weight loss started through gastric bypass or gastric banding surgery. “They start peeling off the pounds, and this tremendous loss of weight really knocks down their pain,” he says. “It’s like a whole new knee. And after losing that weight, they can exercise where they couldn’t before, strengthen their muscles, and further reduce pain.”

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