Stiff, achy joints are often associated with old age, but joint problems aren’t the exclusive domain of pensioners.
In fact, far from it - a number of my friends in their 20s and early 30s have consulted physios for symptoms involving their joints, or occasionally turn up sporting support bandages for a troublesome knee or wrist.
A new survey by joint health supplement Regenovex backs this up, revealing that almost 29% of the 2,000 respondents started experiencing joint problems in their 30s, while another 29% first had the pains in their 40s. More than one in six (16%) said symptoms started in their 20s.
Of course, generally, though it’s not an inevitable part of ageing, we are more likely to experience joint pain and stiffness in older age, largely due to the accumulation of wear and tear over the years, resulting in osteoarthritis.
Genetics can play a part, and so too can injury, and things like being overweight or obese - which is increasingly affecting younger and younger age groups.
Joint problems may be an indication of underlying health problems too, like rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases, so any unusual pains, loss of movement and inflamed - hot and red - joints should be checked out by a doctor.
“We are seeing increasing numbers of younger adults presenting with joint troubles. What is more worrying, is that it appears younger people are coming to seek physiotherapy treatment for arthritic joints,” says physiotherapist Tim Allardyce (www.surreyphysio.co.uk).
“Two of the most common conditions are degenerative disc disease [DDD], typically a condition you might see in your 60s, but now particularly common in your mid-20s. DDD is a degeneration of the discs in the spine - the cushion that sits between the vertebrae - and a common cause of back pain.
“We’re also seeing a lot more people coming with shoulder problems, mostly due to poor posture, and the increasing use of computers, laptops, smart phones and tablets is playing a significant role in this.”
When it comes to joint injuries, sports and degeneration are typical causes.
“Imagine you’re a rugby player and another player is charging towards you, you go to tackle the other player and in doing so, you injure your shoulder. This is a common rugby scenario. The shoulder joint becomes sprained, or possibly dislocated. If this happens, there is little that can be done to stop a traumatic injury,” notes Allardyce.
“But then there are people who simply present insidiously - their pain just comes out of nowhere,” he adds. “Some of these problems are simply joints aching due to being in a poor postural position, or getting stiff. Other times it’s due to degenerative changes in the joint that can cause a whole host of issues, like excess bony growth, cartilage damage and tendon tears. For these people, a lot can be done to protect their joints, such as maintaining a nutritious, healthy diet, regular exercise that’s not too high impact, avoiding sitting all day, and maintaining good posture.”
Though not always the case, joint problems can often get worse if not treated properly - and quickly - so don’t ignore those troublesome niggles that won’t go away and wait until you’re in constant agony or can no longer move properly to ask for help.
“Seek advice straight away,” says Allardyce. “Go to see your GP, or your local physiotherapist or osteopath and get your symptoms checked. In many cases, just a simple workplace adjustment or a few exercises can cure the problem. But sometimes, treatment is needed to correct dysfunction [injury] in the body.
“It’s also important to rehabilitate following injury. Many people suffer pain or an injury, but forget or are not aware of the importance of rehabilitation.”
And rehabilitation is vital.
“After injury, the body has a weakness. It might be a muscle tear, a ligament sprain or a joint injury, but that injured part will be weaker than it was previously. Rehab allows the injured body part to become stronger than what it was, to prevent further re-occurrences or further injury.
“Don’t ignore niggles. Pain is telling you something. Your body is telling you ‘something is not right’. Listen to your body, get medical advice. If you ignore it, you might be lucky and the problem goes away, or you might end up with a serious injury or chronic pain.”
Exercise is vital for keeping the whole body, including joints, healthy - but exercising sensibly is vital too.
“Warming-up is incredibly important,” says Allardyce. “It simply involves increasing blood flow to muscles and joints, and generating heat into these areas. It allows joints to move more freely, and muscles to stretch more easily - this makes injury far less likely.”
Not all joint problems can be cured, Allardyce points out, like arthritis.
“Once damage has been done to a joint, this damage may be irreversible. However, there is still a lot that can be done to help the area, for example, by reducing load on the joint,” he says. “This can be done by improving biomechanics of the joint and the other joints around it. Stretching muscles next to the joint and improving posture can also significantly improve typically incurable conditions. I have treated around a dozen women with arthritic hips who were told they needed surgery, and with the right management and exercises, and a course of physiotherapy, can self-manage their hip condition for years before needing a hip replacement.”
What we put into our bodies plays a role with joint health too. A balanced diet, with plenty of vitamins, minerals, iron, protein and calcium, helps keep bones and soft tissues in good knick.
“Omega-3 fatty acids are particularly important for joint health, as they have anti-inflammatory properties,” says top nutritionist Dr Emma Derbyshire. “Unfortunately, we don’t always get enough from out diets, as oily fish is one of the main dietary sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which we under-consume.”
Hydration is also important, as it contributes to keeping joints lubricated, as well as supporting muscle function - which in turn, support the joints - and helps maintain good circulation.
With joints, prevention and maintenance is better than cure, but research suggests that some people experiencing sore, inflamed joints may benefit from increasing their omega-3 intake.
Supplements containing “omega-3, and hyaluronic acid which has antioxidant properties and is major component of synovial fluid, cartilage, tendons and ligaments, ultimately helping to cushion joints”, notes Derbyshire, may also help in certain cases.