A new study says nearly one billion people will likely have osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, by 2050.

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease caused by wear and tear of the cartilage that cushions the ends of the bones. The condition usually develops as people age and affects joints in the hands, knees, hips and spine.

The latest study, published in The Lancet Rheumatology journal, suggests that 15% of individuals aged 30 and older currently experience osteoarthritis.

Researchers from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) analyzed 30 years of osteoarthritis data from more than 200 countries. They found that 256 million people had osteoarthritis in 1990, and the number grew by 132% to 595 million in 2020. The study projects that the number will hit the one billion mark by 2050.

The most common areas for osteoarthritis are knees and hips. The rapid increase in cases over the past three decades is attributed to three main factors: aging, population growth and obesity.

"With the key drivers of people living longer and a growing world population, we need to anticipate stress on health systems in most countries. There is no effective cure for osteoarthritis right now, so it's critical that we focus on strategies of prevention, early intervention, and making expensive, effective treatments like joint replacements more affordable in low- and middle-income countries," said Dr. Jaimie Steinmetz, a co-author of the study.

Osteoarthritis cases have been more prevalent in women (61%) when compared to men (39%), and the trend is expected to continue in the coming years.

"The reasons for gender differences in osteoarthritis prevalence are being investigated, but researchers believe that genetics, hormonal factors, and anatomical differences play a role," said senior author Dr. Jacek Kopek.

Researchers identified obesity as an important risk factor for osteoarthritis, which when addressed effectively, will reduce the burden by 20%. In 1990, obesity caused osteoarthritis in 16% of the cases and it rose to 20% after thirty years.

"Health care systems and governments have an opportunity to engage and participate in identifying vulnerable populations, addressing drivers of obesity, and developing management strategies to prevent or slow down the progression of osteoarthritis," noted Dr. Liane Ong, a co-author of the study.

Symptoms of Osteoarthritis

  • Pain in the joints during activity or at the end of the day
  • Stiffness of joints after resting
  • Swelling and tenderness
  • Clicking or popping sounds from joints
  • Muscle weakness around joints

Steps to prevent progression

1. Healthy weight - Maintaining a healthy weight helps prevent disease progression in people with osteoarthritis. Being overweight not only strains the joints, but inflammation associated with it adds to the severity of the disease.

2. Exercise - Regular physical activity helps to ease pain, swelling and stiffness associated with osteoarthritis and slows down disease progression.

3. Manage blood sugar - High blood sugar is associated with increased stiffness of joints in osteoarthritis patients. Studies have shown that controlling blood sugar in diabetes patients eases symptoms of the disease.

4. Protect joints - Protecting joints from injuries and maintaining a healthy weight after injuries prevent the worsening of osteoarthritis.