• Cristina Montoya, RD

Surviving the COVID-19 Pandemic: Improving Bone and Muscle Strength in People with Arthritis

Living with any type of arthritis like osteoarthritis, inflammatory arthritis or fibromyalgia in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic can definitely heighten one’s stress. Daily activities such as getting dressed, climbing up the stairs or running after a toddler can be hard to do when you’re having a bad flare-up. I completely understand this- especially since I recently experienced a flare-up of my own. There is one thing that can help ease the stress during this pandemic: knowing how to improve our bone and muscle strength.

What is Osteoarthritis, Inflammatory Arthritis and Fibromyalgia?

In very simple terms, osteoarthritis is the "wear-and-tear" type of arthritis, which occurs when the joint’s cartilage and the bone that it surrounds breaks down and the body can’t repair it. This is the most common type of arthritis and typically occurs in places like the knees, spine, hands, toes and hips. On the other hand, inflammatory arthritis is a group of autoimmune disorders where the body's immune cells begin to attack its own joints and other organs. As a result, pain, stiffness, damage and deformities can arise. And fibromyalgia affects the central nervous system, which causes widespread pain throughout the body.

All of these conditions have one thing in common- they cause excruciating pain that can be debilitating in performing just simple everyday activities. Let alone the impact on one's quality of life when we live with a combination of them.

Why are People with Arthritis at a Higher Risk of Suffering Bone and Muscle Problems?

It seems obvious to think that if we have arthritis, then our muscles and bones are automatically weak. It's not that simple and there are several elements that increase the risk of poor bone and muscle strength:

1. Risk Factors

Source: wix images
Source: Wix images

Age: as someone gets older, bone and muscle mass decrease more quickly.

Gender: women (especially post-menopausal women) are more likely to develop osteoarthritis and/or fibromyalgia, which affects the strength of the muscles and bones.

Family History: if you have a family member who has osteoarthritis and/or fibromyalgia, you’re more likely to develop it too.

Sedentary Lifestyle: if you hardly exercise or move your body this can increase your risk. Performing weight-bearing exercises, which force you to work against gravity such as, squats, are the best for bone and muscle strength.

Excess Weight: extra weight puts more strain on your feet, hips, spine and knees and can cause their deterioration.

2. Disease Process

Inflammation: our bones are constantly being broken down by osteoclasts and being rebuilt by osteoblasts. When there are high levels of inflammation in the body, a protein called cytokine is produced. Cytokines stimulate osteoclasts, the cells that breakdown bone, meaning more bone is being broken then it is being formed (seems unfair for us, don’t you think?).

Muscle Weakness: this is commonly reported in patients who have inflammatory arthritis, specifically rheumatoid arthritis because their muscle size is smaller.

3. Medications

Corticosteroids: are used to lower the inflammation of the body and reduce immune system activity. They cause poor absorption of calcium and vitamin D, which are needed to build healthy, strong bones.

Proton Pump Inhibitors: are used to protect one’s stomach from nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication but they negatively affect the absorption of calcium.

In addition to living with pain and fatigue, the aforementioned factors can further increase one’s risk of developing osteopenia (when your bones are weaker than normal, but they don’t break easily) or osteoporosis (bones are weak, and they do break easily). As well as, sarcopenia (the loss of skeletal muscle and strength). This can be overwhelming but not to worry- I’m here to explain how nutrition plays a key role in reducing your risk!

What Pantry Staples are Helpful in Maintaining Bone and Muscle Strength?

Below is a list of food items that can help strengthen your bones and muscles. There is a mixture of foods to satisfy any diet (like, vegetarian or vegan) that you follow.

Paneer Kebabs @arthritisdietitian

Dairy Products: cheese, yogurt and milk provide high amounts of calcium, Vitamin D (if the food product is fortified), phosphate and protein. These four components are essential for maintaining healthy bones and preventing osteoporosis. They are also important for the functioning and the size of skeletal muscles, which helps prevent sarcopenia. There’s controversy about eating dairy products and how they can cause inflammation in the body but having small amounts is acceptable in an anti-inflammatory diet.