Joint Health 101


Most people take their joint health for granted – that is until something happens to cause damage, pain or discomfort. The adult human body has over 200 joints, each pivotal to our ability to move around and remain physically active. Keeping your joints healthy now for better joint health in the future should be a priority no matter how old you are, and it starts with understanding the basics and implementing healthy habits.

What are Joints?

Our English word derives from the Latin word "aρθρον” that means a joint or a junction. A joint is formed where two or more bones meet. Joints are comprised of a number of different types of fibrous connective tissue, all working together so that you can bend, stretch, twist and turn more easily. These include:

  • Capsule is a tough fibrous sleeve that surrounds the joint to keep bones from moving out of place.
  • Muscle is located at either side of the joint. As the muscles contract, they pull on the bones, allowing the joint to bend, straighten or rotate.
  • Cartilage is a smooth, shiny tissue that covers the ends of bones to cushion the joint and acts as a shock absorber.
  • Ligaments are found within or just outside the joint capsule and help to hold the joint together, prevent dislocation and reduce friction.

Did You Know?

  • More than 780,000 total joint replacements are performed each year in the U.S.
  • Joints need some physical load, such as gravity, to maintain proper integrity.
  • Articular cartilage is made up of 65 to 80 percent water.
  • Approximately 27 million Americans have osteoarthritis, making it the most common form of arthritis.
  • The Arthritis Foundation recognizes over 100 different types of arthritis.

Joint Disease & Disorders

Joint pain can range from mild to severe and, in some cases, makes it impossible to use a joint. Many cases of joint pain are caused by arthritis, while others are caused by factors such as age or history of injury.


Arthritis is one of the leading causes of joint pain. Arthritis is a condition that causes wear and tear on the joint’s protective cartilage over time. As the cartilage breaks down, a person’s bones rub together, leading to an extensive amount of pain. The two most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis:


  • Osteoarthritis, often called wear-and-tear arthritis, occurs when the protective cartilage on the ends of your bones slowly breaks down. The disorder can affect any joint in your body, but commonly affects the hand, neck, lower back, knee and hip joints.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disorder that typically affects the lining of small joints, like your hands and feet, causing painful swelling that may eventually lead to bone erosion and joint deformity.


Other Causes for Joint Damage

Beyond arthritis, other causes for joint damage and pain may include aging, previous injury, inflammation, loss of muscle mass and excess weight:

  • Aging: As you age, your joints can become stiffer and less flexible. Fluids in the joints may decrease, calcification may occur and cartilage may begin to rub together and erode.
  • Previous injury: Even minor joint injuries can contribute to joint damage in the future.
  • Inflammation: Inflammatory cells can gather at the site of injury and release chemicals destructive to the cartilage.
  • Loss of muscle mass: It’s natural to lose some muscle mass as you get older. If you don’t work to keep it, your joint (instead of your muscle) will try to compensate, which can lead to joint damage.
  • Excess weight: Extra weight puts extra stress on your bones and joints – especially for the knee joint.

5 Goals to Set for Joint Protection

It’s never too early or too late to start protecting your joints. Set these five goals to promote a lifetime of good joint health:

Goal #1: Get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity every week, including some weight-bearing exercise.

Exercise can help you maintain bone density, lessen joint pain and avoid extra weight gain that can stress joints and build your balance to prevent falls that can damage bones and joints. Strengthening exercises (hand-held weights and resistance bands), aerobic exercises (climbing stairs, dancing and walking) and flexibility exercises (stretching and yoga) are known to prevent and relieve joint pain.

Goal #2: Eat a balanced diet.

There is no one food to guarantee good joint health. Instead, eat a balanced diet rich in vegetables, whole grains, protein and calcium, as well as:

  • Antioxidants, including vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E and selenium - all powerful players in fighting the free radicals that may be causing you joint pain.
  • Fatty acids, including salmon, sardines and herring, as well as green vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains which may help reduce swelling of joints.
  • Glucosamine-based dietary supplements (such as Osteo Bi-Flex, Move Free or Flex-a-min) can give you an extra boost in joint health.

Goal #3: Maintain a healthy weight.

Carrying extra weight (especially around the midsection) can add extra strain on your bones and joints and may be linked to higher risk for osteoporosis. To protect your joints, maintain a healthy weight through proper diet and focused exercise.

Goal #4: Handle heavy loads. 

Use your biggest joints to support weight as you lift and carry. When lifting, bend at your knees rather than bending your back.

Goal #5: Perfect your posture.

From your neck to your knees and all of your joints in between, standing and sitting up straight is one of the best ways to protect your joints for the long term.
Preventing joint pain is a lot easier than having to deal with the effects after your joints become susceptible to disease. Contact the orthopedic specialists at UnityPoint Health – Des Moines for practical tips on preventing joint pain, as well as treatment and recovery options to keep symptoms at bay. 

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