Arthritis in the Hands: More Common Than You Might Think

Students of public health have been good at estimating the lifetime risk of various illnesses, such as heart disease and cancer. However, a similar estimate for hand osteoarthritis (OA) has not been systematically achieved — until now, that is. A team of researchers utilized data from an initiative in North Carolina called the Johnston County Osteoarthritis Project. They had two goals: to estimate a person’s lifetime risk of developing arthritis in the hands and then to break down the risk according to age, sex, race, obesity, and other factors. The study included white and black men and women aged 45 and above — a total of 2218 adults. Data was collected four times: at the initial examination and then at three follow-up points. Radiographs of both hands were taken during clinic visits, and the researchers also collected self-analysis reports from the participants — information on the presence of such hand osteoarthritis symptoms as stiffness, achiness, and decreased grip strength.

To their surprise, the researchers discovered that the lifetime risk of symptomatic hand osteoarthritis is nearly 40%. The risk is even higher in women and varies with other factors. The researchers also found that the association of hand osteoarthritis with extreme old age is a myth — hand osteoarthritis often shows up during middle age. In total, 352 of the subjects had osteoarthritis in at least one hand, which made the lifetime risk 39.8%. However, the lifetime risk for women was almost one in two (47.2%). The lifetime risk was about 12 percentage points higher for white adults than for black adults, and among obese persons the lifetime risk of symptomatic hand osteoarthtis was 47% — 11 points higher than it was for nonobese persons (36%).

According to Jin Qin, ScD, the leader of the research team, the findings indicate the need for “increased use of public health and clinical prevention and intervention measures” for hand osteoarthis. And she went on to point out, “There are effective and inexpensive public health interventions as well as other nonpharmacologic strategies and pharmacologic therapies that may help manage OA symptoms, maintain better function, and improve quality of life.”

Want to learn more about osteoarthritis? Read “Osteoarthritis: Who Gets It?” “Osteoarthritis: How Is It Treated?” “Osteoarthritis: Top 10 Self-Management Tips,” and “How Our Understanding of Osteoarthritis Is Changing.”

Joseph Gustaitis is a freelance writer and editor based in the Chicago area.

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