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Navigating the Connection: Obesity and Orthopedic Health

You probably know that being overweight or obese can be hard on your joints, especially your back, hips and knees. In fact, every pound of body weight adds four to six pounds of pressure to your knee joints, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons

That means, if you’re 50 pounds overweight, every step you take puts an extra 200 to 300 pounds of pressure on each knee. 

Joint pain can make it hard to walk, climb stairs, sleep comfortably and do the things you like to do in life. Having too much body weight can affect the entire musculoskeletal system, which includes your joints, bones, muscles, ligaments and tendons.

Obesity is a common health problem. More than four out of every ten adults in the United States and about two out of every ten children are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Understanding how your weight affects your joints can guide your choices and motivate you to make healthy changes. We connected with Emil Graf, MD, a bariatric surgeon with Banner Health, to learn more about the impact of body weight on your joints.

How your weight affects your joints

Your joints help you move and stabilize your body. They are not designed to support a lot of extra weight over a long time. 

“Excess body weight increases the wear and tear on joints and makes discomfort worse for people who have degenerative joint disease,” Dr. Graf said. “And because increased body weight reduces your range of motion, it increases the risk of falls that can cause injuries.” 

Extra weight also puts pressure and strain on your joints. “Over time, obesity causes the soft tissue cushion between the joints to break down. That results in pain and limited mobility,” Dr. Graf said. Excess weight can also change your posture and your gait, forcing your joints to adjust to these changes.

It's common for people with excess body weight to develop osteoarthritis. This type of arthritis can happen when the cartilage that cushions the ends of your joints wears down over time. Arthritis can cause pain and stiffness and can make it harder for you to move around.

If you are overweight or obese, you're also more likely to have back pain, herniated discs and joint inflammation. Obesity can also weaken your bones and make it more likely that you will develop osteoporosis.

How you can help your joints

Weight loss isn’t easy, and most people who are feeling the effects of being overweight or obese have tried to lose weight many times in the past. That’s why it can be helpful to work with your health care provider. 

Your provider can take into consideration your health status and your underlying issues. They can also refer you to a dietitian or a weight loss clinic for personalized help and to a fitness professional to help you build a physical activity program. Plus, they can help you monitor your progress. 

It’s important to focus on your physical, mental and emotional health when you’re trying to lose weight. That way, you’re focusing on whole body health, not just numbers on the scale. You’re including lifestyle choices, mental well-being and habits you can stick with.

Your health care team will help you make gradual, sustainable changes that become part of your lifestyle. They can help you set specific, measurable milestones to aim for as you work toward your weight loss goal.  

They may recommend:

  • Portion control to help you avoid overeating. 
  • Focusing on nutrient-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats. 
  • Drinking plenty of water to support your overall health and your weight-loss efforts. 
  • Physical activity that includes at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, plus strength training to build muscle and boost your metabolism. Your team can help you find exercises that you enjoy and that you can manage with your joints. 

Embrace your journey with patience and the understanding that small, consistent changes lead to lasting results. It can be hard to maintain drastic changes, but small adjustments are easier to stick with. They help you shift your behaviors and build healthy habits for life.

Remember that every time you make progress toward your weight loss goals, you’re investing in the health of your joints. “Losing weight reduces the stress on your weight-bearing joints, which improves your mobility and reduces your pain,” Dr. Graf said. 

Connect with support

You’ll improve your odds for success with your weight loss efforts if you can count on others. Your friends and family can provide emotional support. You can turn to the people who care about you to cheer on your successes and to understand and encourage you when you have setbacks. 

You may also want to join online or in-person support groups. Sharing your experiences with others who are facing the same challenges – and learning from them – can help you succeed. And you can share your goals and ask people in your group to help keep you accountable. 

Whether it’s a workout partner, a family member or an online community, connecting with others can be an important part of your weight loss journey. Turn to them to celebrate your victories, boost your motivation and build your confidence. 

The bottom line

Being overweight or obese can lead to a lot of pain and problems in your joints, especially weight-bearing joints like your back, hips and knees. By losing weight, you can reduce your pain, be more mobile and make it more likely your joints will stay healthy for years to come.

To learn more about the link between weight and joint problems, and for support in losing weight, talk to your health care provider or reach out to an expert at Banner Health. “Banner has both surgical and non-surgical weight-loss programs that give you the resources you need for long-term success on your weight-loss journey,” Dr. Graf said.

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