Women have a significantly higher risk for developing arthritis, particularly osteoarthritis. In addition, experts believe women tend to get more severe osteoarthritis than men.1

The causes of osteoarthritis are mysterious, but it's clear that women are more at risk.
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Osteoarthritis Causes

Why is there such a difference between men and women when it comes to osteoarthritis?

Biomechanics

The unique function and motions of women’s joints are thought to play a role in the development of arthritis in some people.

Wide hips
Women tend to have wider hips, which some experts believe affects the alignment of the knee. Wider hips may cause extra stress on the inside of the knee, leading to osteoarthritis. Although studies have shown that uneven knee loads can raise the risk for osteoarthritis, they have not shown that this affects women in particular.

See Knee Osteoarthritis Symptoms

Women also tend to have more flexible joints and hypermobility (double-jointedness), which some research indicates could increase risk for arthritis.

Childbirth
The number of full-term childbirths a woman has seems to increase the likelihood of developing either hip or knee arthritis. In fact, in a study of more than 1,600 women ages 50 to 79, women who had given birth to 5 to 12 children were 2.6 times more likely to have had a knee replacement than women who had birthed just one child.2

See Hip Osteoarthritis Symptoms

Hypermobility
Women tend to have more flexible joints and hypermobility (double-jointedness), which some research indicates could increase risk for arthritis.

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Hormones

Hormones, specifically estrogen and testosterone, are thought to play a role in the development of arthritis in women.

Estrogen
The rate of osteoarthritis in women shoots up after menopause. Women who already have knee osteoarthritis may notice symptoms worsen during this time. This has led some experts to believe that a drop in the female hormone estrogen affects arthritis risk. However, studies of how taking estrogen (via hormone replacement therapy) affects the risk of developing osteoarthritis have produced mixed results, so researchers can't say for sure how the relationship between estrogen and arthritis works.

See Osteoarthritis Causes

Testosterone
Alternatively, it may be a lack of testosterone that puts women at risk. Testosterone helps build muscles, and men tend to have stronger leg muscles than women. Strong muscles help support the knee joint, lowering the risk of osteoarthritis.

Strong muscles support the knee joint and help reduce friction by maintaining healthy joint space between the bones.

The Risk Factor You Can Control: Obesity

Obesity is one of the most significant—and potentially preventable—predictors for osteoarthritis. Extra body weight contributes to both the development and progression of joint deterioration.

See Osteoarthritis Causes

Experts are still not sure of exactly how obesity may trigger osteoarthritis—for example, osteoarthritis may result from decreased activity, extra weight on load-bearing joints, inflammation associated with obesity, or a combination of these factors—but there's no doubt that the two are connected.

There is good news. Losing extra pounds can:

  • Cut your risk for developing osteoarthritis
  • Decrease your joint pain and slow joint degeneration if you already have symptoms of osteoarthritis

See How Effective is Weight Loss for Treating Knee Arthritis Pain?

A combination of diet and exercise is the safest and most effective way to lose weight and keep it off. Even if you have an achy knee or hip that prevents you from doing activities like running, there are several other types of exercise that can help you stay active without putting strain on your joints. These can include:

See Ways to Get Exercise When You Have Arthritis

Women—and all adults—can take steps to feel healthier and decrease their joint pain. If you're struggling with ways to manage your arthritis or general health, talk with your doctor.

Learn more:

Tips for Losing Weight to Treat Knee Pain

Knee Exercises for Arthritis

References:

  1. Srikanth VK, Fryer JL, Zhai G, Winzenberg TM, Hosmer D, Jones G. A meta-analysis of sex differences prevalence, incidence and severity of osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis Cartilage. 2005;13(9):769–81
  2. Wise BL, Niu J, Zhang Y, et al. The association of parity with osteoarthritis and knee replacement in the multicenter osteoarthritis study. Osteoarthritis Cartilage. 2013;21(12):1849–1854. doi:10.1016/j.joca.2013.08.025
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