70% of people over 50 experience joint pain, poll shows

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Findings from the University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging include that 70% of people over 50 experience joint pain at least occasionally. Photo by whitesession/Pixabay

Aching joints are common for people over 50, but it’s still important to talk to a doctor about it rather than endlessly self-medicating, experts say.

Now, a new poll from the University of Michigan breaks down joint pain, its impact on those who responded to the survey and how they’ve chosen to react to this painful condition.

Findings from the University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging include that 70% of people over 50 experience joint pain at least occasionally. About 60% have been told they have some form of arthritis.

Among those who have arthritis symptoms, about 45% said they have pain every day and 49% said it somewhat limits their usual activities.

“If you are feeling joint pain frequently, or it interferes with your normal activities, you don’t have to go it alone,” said Indira Venkat, senior vice president of AARP Research. The organization was one of the supporters for the poll. “Talk with your health provider about how you are treating your joint pain and additional strategies that may help.”

About 80% of those with joint pain said they had at least some confidence they could manage it on their own.

About 66% do so with over-the-counter pain relievers such as aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) or naproxen (Aleve). About 26% reported taking supplements, such as glucosamine or chondroitin. About 11% use cannabidiol (CBD), derived from marijuana, while 9% use marijuana.

About 18% use prescription-only non-opioid pain relievers, 19% get steroid injections, 14% take oral steroids, 14% use opioids and 4% use disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs.

“There are sizable risks associated with many of these treatment options, especially when taken long-term or in combination with other drugs. Yet 60% of those taking two or more substances for their joint pain said their healthcare provider hadn’t talked with them about risks, or they couldn’t recall if they had. And 26% of those taking oral steroids hadn’t talked with a provider about the special risks these drugs bring,” said Dr. Beth Wallace. She is a rheumatologist and researcher at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare system, the VA Center for Clinical Management Research and Michigan Medicine.

“This suggests a pressing need for providers to talk with their patients about how to manage their joint pain, and what interactions and long-term risks might arise if they use medications to do so,” Wallace said.

Guidelines from the American College of Rheumatology for osteoarthritis and the more rare rheumatoid arthritis seek to reduce the risk that can happen with long-term use or for those taking multiple medications that can affect patients’ stomach, liver, blood pressure, blood sugar, mood or sleep.

The guidelines for osteoarthritis, which can be caused by wear and tear, emphasize weight loss, exercise, self-management programs with arthritis educators, tai chi, yoga, braces, splints and kinesiotaping, acupuncture or acupressure, cognitive behavioral therapy and applying heat, cold or topical pain relievers on aching joints.

For medication, the guidelines focus on short-term use of over-the-counter medications in low doses, along with steroid joint injections in appropriate patients. They recommend against most supplements, opioids and other prescription drugs.

About 64% of survey respondents who have joint pain do use exercise and 24% have had physical therapy. Far fewer used non-drug options such as braces.

Certain groups of older adults appear to be more likely to experience worse joint pain, said poll director Dr. Preeti Malani, a Michigan Medicine physician with training in infectious diseases and geriatrics.

“Those who say their overall health is fair or poor were twice as likely to say they have moderate or severe joint pain as those in better health. The difference was nearly as great between those who say their mental health is fair or poor than those who reported better mental health,” she said in a Michigan Medicine news release.

“And older adults with fair or poor physical or mental health were much more likely to agree with the statement that there’s nothing that someone with joint pain can do to ease their symptoms, which we now know to be untrue,” Malani said. “Health providers need to raise the topic of joint pain with their older patients, and help them make a plan for care that might work for them.”

The phone poll was administered in January and February 2022 among 2,277 adults aged 50 to 80.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on osteoarthritis.

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