Can You Get Osteoarthritis as a Young Adult?

Can you get arthritis in your 20s? Osteoarthritis is one type of arthritis that can affect young adults.

Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common type of arthritis. Although osteoarthritis (OA) is usually associated with older people, it is possible to develop it in your 20s.

Arthritis refers to any disease or pain that affects the joints. In particular, osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease that wears down joint cartilage, damaging the bones, fat, and connective joint tissue. OA develops gradually and typically worsens over time, causing symptoms such as pain, stiffness, and decreased mobility.

Closeup side view of early 30's unrecognizable doctor examining a knee of a woman during an appointment. The doctor is gently touching the tendons around the knee and the knee cap and trying to determine the cause of pain.
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Over 32 million people across the U.S. live with osteoarthritis. While this condition can affect any joint, it typically affects the knees, hips, back, hands, and neck. Symptoms such as pain or swelling may not occur right away and can worsen over time.

While there is no cure for osteoarthritis, there are ways to manage the condition to minimize pain and remain active.

How Common Is Osteoarthritis in Young Adults?

Osteoarthritis typically affects people over the age of 50, but younger people can be affected as well. The CDC estimates that about 7% of the U.S. population aged 18–44 had been diagnosed with OA between 2013–2015.

Younger people who are active in sports or other physically demanding activities, or who have sustained an injury such as a torn meniscus—a tear in the cartilage of the knee—may be more prone to developing the condition earlier in life.

Symptoms of Osteoarthritis

Many young people with osteoarthritis experience few symptoms, or even none at all. If they do experience pain, they may assume it is simply part of playing sports or being active. Research shows that younger people tend to have a higher pain tolerance than older adults and may not seek medical advice right away, leading to delayed diagnosis.

Although some people don't experience symptoms early on, symptoms of OA typically develop over time. If you are a young adult who experiences recurring stiffness in a joint after long periods of inactivity, this may be a sign to seek medical help for a potential diagnosis of OA.

Symptoms of OA, which people of all ages may experience, include:

  • Pain or aching in the joint, especially after activity or at the end of the day
  • Swelling around the joint
  • Stiffness after sleeping or sitting for extended periods that go away with movement
  • Difficulty moving the joint
  • Popping or clicking in the joint
  • Weakness in the muscles around the joint
  • Instability of the joint, like a knee-buckling

Causes and Risk Factors for Developing Osteoarthritis at a Younger Age

While older age is a common risk factor for OA, other factors may contribute to the development of the disease in younger people. These include but aren't limited to:

  • Joint injury: Trauma to the joints can increase the risk of developing OA. Repeated physical activity upon an injured joint can exacerbate symptoms. Research estimates about half of the young individuals who sustain knee injuries in the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) or meniscus will go on to develop OA within 10–20 years.
  • Being an athlete: Younger people who participate in sports such as football, soccer, lacrosse, hockey, and rugby are more likely to experience joint injuries, increasing their risk of developing OA. More than 80% of U.S. football players who had a knee injury went on to develop OA 10–30 years later.
  • Obesity: Developing obesity in early adulthood can put additional stress on the joints, increasing the risk of developing OA in the knees and ankles.
  • Genetics: Having a family member who has OA increases the risk of developing the condition.

Other Types of Arthritis in Young Adults

While osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, there are other types of arthritis that can develop in young adults. These include:

  • Juvenile arthritis (JA): This refers to the different types of arthritis that can occur in people under the age of 16. JA is typically autoimmune, meaning the immune system attacks healthy joints and tissues and causes inflammation. Symptoms of JA are similar to OA and include joint pain, swelling, and stiffness. However, some types of JA may only affect the skin or organs.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA): This inflammatory autoimmune disease typically starts in smaller joints like the fingers and hands and progresses to larger joints like the knees and hips, and eventually the organs. Over time, rheumatoid arthritis damages the bone and cartilage of the joints causing pain, deformities, and decreased mobility. RA typically appears between the ages of 35–60.
  • Gout: This inflammatory arthritis involves sudden pain in one joint at a time, such as the big toe or ankle, which can last for several days. Risk factors for gout include obesity and a diet high in purines (found in red meat and some seafood). Older adults tend to develop gout, but more people are developing gout earlier in life, under the age of 40.

Living With Osteoarthritis

OA symptoms can range from subtle to life-altering, making it difficult to participate in sports or regular activities. But there are individual lifestyle changes and treatment options that can help reduce pain and improve joint movement.

If you are a young adult with OA, taking proactive steps to care for your joint health may help you continue to participate in physical activities you enjoy. This may include physical therapy and practicing different exercises to treat specific joints and symptoms and prevent further damage. For instance, muscle-strengthening exercises may reduce pain in an affected joint. For people with hip or knee OA, strength and flexibility training, along with aerobic exercises, may be helpful.

Studies suggest that maintaining a healthy weight may reduce the development of OA in the knee, as obesity is a known risk factor.

Common treatments for OA include:

  • Exercise: Keeping the joints active can help reduce pain and maintain functionality. A physical therapist can develop a targeted exercise plan.
  • Medication: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Advil (ibuprofen) can help alleviate inflammation and pain.
  • Bracing: For certain joints, such as the knee, a brace may help with alignment to ease pain and prevent further degeneration of the joint.

A Quick Review

While typically thought of as an older person's condition, OA can affect young people. Taking steps to lower the risk of developing OA, such as maintaining a healthy weight, can help prevent arthritis. If you are a younger person who has had a joint injury or has a family history of arthritis, talk to your healthcare provider about steps you can take to remain active into later adulthood.

If you experience pain or stiffness in your joints that lasts for weeks or worsens and doesn't go away, don't put off seeking help. A healthcare provider can help you develop a plan to reduce pain and remain active.

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