Arthritis is surprisingly widespread

Published August 21, 2023

soccer player helps an opponent up from the ground

Photo by Chuttersnap, Unsplash.

After Haiti’s national soccer team qualified for the Women’s World Cup for the first time, midfielder Jennyfer Limage endured a knee injury just 30 minutes into the team’s opening game against England. Limage had torn her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), forcing her out of the competition. Even before the Women’s World Cup began, similar injuries sidelined players from the US, the Netherlands, and England from the most important women’s soccer competition in the world.  

For professional soccer players, the consequences of knee injuries can extend far beyond missing out on the biggest opportunities of their career. Playing elite high-impact sports, and the injuries that frequently accompany it, elevate people’s risk of developing arthritis before or around the time that they reach middle age. A new study led by IHME shows that arthritis isn’t just a potential hazard for soccer stars, however. It’s also a prime cause of disability among the general population, particularly women and people with uteruses.  

The most common form of arthritis is osteoarthritis, which is caused by wear and tear on the joints. A person’s likelihood of developing osteoarthritis increases with age. Osteoarthritis affects 595 million people worldwide – one out of every 13 people – making it almost as pervasive as nearsightedness, also known as distance vision loss. Researchers expect that the challenge of osteoarthritis will grow over time. By 2050, as the population expands and ages, the scientists project that nearly 1 billion people will have osteoarthritis, meaning that the number of individuals living with the condition will almost double.  

“It’s counterintuitive, but having joint pain doesn’t mean we should remain sedentary. Being physically active can alleviate strain on joints which can prevent or delay disease development,” -Dr. Liane Ong, lead research scientist at IHME.

The implications of this rapid increase in osteoarthritis are stark at both individual and societal levels. This condition can prevent people from performing everyday tasks and force them to drop out of the workforce. It can also lead to other health problems. “Since osteoarthritis can reduce people’s ability to move around, it can worsen their health and increase their likelihood of dying of other diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases and diabetes,” said Dr. Jaimie Steinmetz, a lead research scientist at IHME and the first author of the study. “Osteoarthritis may also reduce a person’s engagement with their community, depriving them of social connection, which can impact their mental health,” she added.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for osteoarthritis, but a variety of treatments exist. Physical therapy and exercise can ease symptoms, such as pain in joints. “It’s counterintuitive, but having joint pain doesn’t mean we should remain sedentary. Being physically active can alleviate strain on joints which can prevent or delay disease development,” said Dr. Liane Ong, the lead research scientist at IHME who oversaw the study.

People living with osteoarthritis can use canes and splints and adapt their home environment to help manage their symptoms. For example, climbing stairs could worsen a person’s knee pain, so they might opt to switch their housing to a single level. When people reach the advanced stage of osteoarthritis, having surgery to replace the affected joint can have a profoundly positive impact on their mobility. Governments can help facilitate these vital interventions and treatments for osteoarthritis by making it easier for people to access them – home modifications and surgery can be costly.  

As people’s need for treatment for osteoarthritis grows, clinics and hospitals around the world may struggle to meet demand. Restoring a person’s ability to move through knee or hip replacement can be particularly difficult in places where orthopedic surgeons are scarce. For instance, in a study, researchers in the United States and Ghana reported that the number of orthopedic surgeons in the US is 7 per 100,000 people compared to less than one (approximately 0.10) per 100,000 people in Ghana.  

Preventing osteoarthritis from occurring in the first place will be crucial for slowing its rise. According to Dr. Steinmetz, to accomplish this, policymakers can work to reduce the number of people who experience joint injuries and encourage individuals to engage in low-impact physical activity such as walking on a regular basis. Governments can play an important role in encouraging people to exercise by creating neighborhoods that make it safe and easy to do so.  

“Preventing or mitigating the impacts of osteoarthritis could avoid decades of reduced quality of life,” the researchers wrote in their study. “The demand on health systems for care such as joint replacements...will rise in all regions but may be out of reach and lead to further health inequity for individuals and countries unable to afford them,” they added. Supporting the prevention and treatment of osteoarthritis in all countries is essential for helping everyone, no matter where they live or who they are, to live long, healthy, and happy lives.  


Scientific Publication

Global, regional, and national burden of osteoarthritis, 1990–2020 and projections to 2050