But not so many, perhaps, know about the unique challenges women face regarding arthritis. Not only do women get more arthritis than men (one in four compared to one in five), but women also often experience worse pain –ache in different joints – and are far more vulnerable to rheumatoid arthritis, one of the most debilitating forms of the condition.
Before we go into the particulars of how arthritis affects women, let’s review a few basics. The term “arthritis” is a category of conditions that bring inflammation and pain in the joints – and age is a huge risk factor. There are more than 100 different kinds of arthritis, each with its own risk factors and symptoms. The medical specialty that focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of arthritis is rheumatology, though many primary care doctors and orthopedic specialists also care for patients with arthritis too.
Here is some information on how the two most common types of arthritis – osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis – affect women.
Osteoarthritis: Why the Odds are Stacked Against Women
- Women get arthritis later than men – but when they do get it, it hurts more. More men get arthritis before the age of 55, but women then catch up quickly and overtake men in numbers. And women with arthritis consistently report higher pain scores than men.
- Arthritis tends to affect different joints in women than men. Men get more arthritis in their hip joints; women in their hands and knees. Why? For one thing, women’s tendons move around more because, to accommodate childbirth, they are more elastic and also more prone to injury. Also women’s wider hips affect the alignment of the knees in a way that leaves them more vulnerable to certain types of injuries, which translates to more arthritis down the road.
- Hormones play a role too. Estrogen helps keep inflammation in check, which is why younger women have less arthritis than men – but when levels plummet with menopause, arthritis often arrives. Researchers are currently trying to tease out other complicated findings regarding how hormones shape arthritis risk, with apparent connections between age of puberty, childbearing and the use of hormone replacement therapy.
- Extra weight means more arthritis. Obesity is more common in women than men. Excess weight puts pressure on the knee joints, eroding cartilage and therefore raising arthritis risk. One pound of body weight translates into three additional pounds of pressure on each knee joint, for instance.
- It might be Mom’s fault. Having a family history of the condition raises risk for both genders and, interestingly, the connection is even stronger for women. A woman whose mother has or had arthritis is likely to develop the problem at the same age and in the same joints.
Rheumatoid Arthritis: A More Aggressive Immune System Raises Women’s Risk
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is different from osteoarthritis in that the inflammation is an autoimmune reaction and unrelated to wear and tear on the joints. Three times as many women as men get RA. Also, women tend to be younger when they get RA and, as with osteoarthritis, their pain is worse.
Experts believe there are two main reasons for the gender differences in RA. First, women get autoimmune diseases in far greater numbers than men – it’s thought that the female immune system is stronger and more reactive. Second, it appears that hormones affect RA risk and flares. Many women with RA who get pregnant experience fewer or no symptoms at all, only to find that they reappear after the baby is born. And breastfeeding lowers the risk of developing RA; a woman who has breastfed for two years has reduced the risk she will ever get the condition by half.