Arthritis isn’t just for older adults. In fact, of the nearly 59 million people in the United States who suffer from arthritis, more than half are between the ages of 18 to 64—including many caregivers.
What is arthritis?
Arthritis is swelling or inflammation of one or more joints and can cause symptoms of pain, stiffness and diminished range of motion in the joints. Several types of arthritis can affect different parts of the body, including the joints, skin, heart, eyes, lungs or kidneys.
Types of arthritis include:
- Osteoarthritis: The most common form of arthritis and occurs most commonly in the hands, hips and knees
- Rheumatoid arthritis: An autoimmune and inflammatory disease that causes your immune system to attack healthy cells in your body by mistake, causing inflammation in certain parts of the body
- Fibromyalgia: A condition that causes pain all over the body and can cause sleep problems, fatigue, and emotional or mental distress
- Gout: A very common and painful form of inflammatory arthritis that usually affects one joint at a time
According to CDC research published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the prevalence of arthritis is higher among caregivers compared to non-caregivers, and caregivers who have arthritis are more likely to report disabilities.
The researchers examined data from 17 states to assess arthritis and caregiving among caregivers of a family member or friend. From this data of 91,000 participants, they identified that 20.6% of the participants were caregivers and more than 35.1% of caregivers had arthritis. In addition, arthritis was more prevalent in caregivers (35.1%) compared to non-caregivers (24.5%) across all demographic subgroups, including age, sex, education status, body mass index and inactivity status.
Furthermore, while caregivers with arthritis provided similar types of care as those participants without arthritis, they were more likely to have provided care for longer periods of time, including five years or longer and for 40 hours a week or more. Caregivers with arthritis also reported disabilities at higher rates (38%) compared to those without arthritis (7.3%).
“As both the number of persons providing care for friends and family members and the number of persons with arthritis increase, supporting caregivers with arthritis can help promote their own health along with the care they provide,” the authors wrote in the report.
Why might arthritis be more prevalent among caregivers?
While arthritis can affect people of all ages, races, sexes and backgrounds, Melanie Weller, MPT, a physical therapist, said the condition may be more prevalent among caregivers because they often have to perform tasks in positions that are not mechanically ideal for the body, such as bending over and leaning across beds or lifting patients from one location to another.
“Caregiving can create excessive stress on joints due to the physical demands on the caregiver’s body,” she said. “Caregiving also creates high and sustained stress levels on the nervous system, keeping them in a state of fight or flight … If you do not have the flexibility or strength to help someone stand up or help them roll in bed, arthritis symptoms can set in.”
Alan Beyer, MD, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and executive medical director of Hoag Orthopedic Institute, added that because caregivers perform a lot of work using their hands and body, it puts their bodies at a similar risk of getting arthritis, similar to people who type all day or people who lift heavy objects daily.
For example, if a caregiver is involved in lifting a person out of bed and transferring them into a wheelchair, they’re going to be putting their back at risk in terms of having issues or injuries with their back, which could lead to arthritis, Beyer explained.
“They need to get proper training in how to bend and how to lift to take away that risk of them injuring their back by repeatedly lifting their patient into and out of the wheelchair and onto the bed. That is just an example where a caregiver is at risk,” Beyer said. “But someone who works for UPS and unloads packages on and off his truck all day long has the same risks and should be getting the same training.”
The researchers, however, noted there are some limitations to their report. The participants self-reported whether or not they had arthritis, which could be subject to several biases. Also, the data could not be validated using medical records, the data from 17 states might not be representative of all areas, and the difference in the prevalence of arthritis among caregivers versus non-caregivers were not observed in some racial and ethnic groups.
What should I do as a caregiver?
If you’re a caregiver and currently don’t have arthritis, there are some things you can do to prevent the condition:
- Maintain a healthy weight – Extra pounds can put pressure on joints like the knees, especially when you are walking or standing.
- Exercise and remain active – Get in at least 30 minutes of exercise a day, five days a week, to help strengthen muscles and joints.
- Stretch – Gentle stretching can help improve your range of motion and keep your joints lubricated.
- Consume a healthy and well-balanced diet – Eating healthy foods, including ones high in Omega 3 fatty acids, may reduce inflammation. Eating a well-balanced diet allows you to control your blood sugar levels, which can prevent stiffening in tissues that support your joints.
- Get evaluated by a health care provider – Your doctor or physical therapist can provide additional intervention strategies to reduce your stress and promote other behavioral or lifestyle changes.
Weller added that water exercise is great for arthritis and preventing it because it reduces how much weight is going through your joints, and the hydrostatic pressure of the water can help with swelling.
“The biggest gift you can give yourself for arthritis prevention is the gift of walking softly. Eating healthy foods is also important,” Weller said. “It’s important to get some variety in your life, too. Music, art, writing, friends and spiritual practice are all ways that we can nourish ourselves, and if one of those is especially meaningful to you, be sure to integrate it into your daily routine.”