You may feel little, if any, pain, stiffness or weakness if you have osteoarthritis. In fact, you may not even know you have it at all. But when pain does set in—if you wince every time you grab a bag of groceries or turn a key…or if you simply have gnawing achiness or stiffness in your hands—your osteoarthritis is more alarming. It might be a sign that you’re at risk for a life-threatening disease that has nothing to do with your bones—heart disease.
Studies have already shown that rheumatoid arthritis is associated with atherosclerosis (hardening of arteries). Now, researchers from Norway and Boston University School of Medicine have shown a heart disease link with osteoarthritis, too.
To better rule out whether heart disease in patients with osteoarthritis was simply linked to being immobile too much of the time—as happens with people who have osteoarthritis of the spine, hip and knee—the researchers focused only on hand osteoarthritis. Specifically, they wanted to see if there was a link between osteoarthritis of the hands and coronary heart disease, congestive heart failure and a type of stroke called atherothrombotic brain infarction.
“Coronary heart disease” describes heart attack as well as a painful condition called coronary insufficiency syndrome, in which blood flow to the heart’s arteries is decreased because of narrowing of the arteries caused by plaque buildup. Congestive heart failure, also caused by narrowing of the arteries, is a condition in which the heart can’t pump adequately to supply the body with enough oxygenated blood.
For a study population, the researchers went to the renowned Framingham Heart Study database. The researchers were looking to identify people whose MRIs proved that they had osteoarthritis of the hands—some with symptoms, some without—and compare them against each other and people who did not have osteoarthritis. In all, the researchers studied 1,348 people who were between the ages of 50 to 75. Of these, 540 had symptom-free hand osteoarthritis and 186 had symptoms. The rest were osteoarthritis-free.
THE HAND-HEART LINK
Researchers found no association between hand osteoarthritis and congestive heart failure, atherothrombotic stroke or a higher risk of death due to heart disease. They did, however, find an association between coronary heart disease and hand osteoarthritis. In fact, if you have symptomatic hand osteoarthritis, you are more than twice as likely to have a heart attack and coronary insufficiency as someone who does not have it. Even the people with symptomless hand osteoarthritis had an increased risk, although the increase was so slight that it couldn’t scientifically be considered strong evidence. Researchers believe that the connection between arthritis and heart disease is likely rooted in inflammation (a factor in both conditions). Note that the researchers did account for other risk factors, such as smoking, age, gender and weight, to make sure that their findings were not linked to these instead of osteoarthritis.
What this means for you. Hand osteoarthritis is mainly caused by normal wear and tear, so the older you get, the more likely that you have it. Sixty percent of Americans over the age of 60 have hand osteoarthritis. Of these, 8% have symptoms (pain and stiffness). Eight percent might not seem like much, but it amounts to about three million people. Although pain and stiffness may be an indication that the osteoarthritis is at a more severe stage, how and why are not yet completely known.
As for how to know if you have hand osteoarthritis if the condition is pain-free, there are signs to watch out for. For one, you may not be able to move the hand as agilely as you once did. Also, you may notice swelling and bony knobs or bumps near the affected joints.
Physical exercise, such as tai chi and yoga, can help keep a lid on osteoarthritis, and while various treatments can help manage the pain, you may want to monitor your heart health more closely, given the findings of this study. A visit to a cardiologist to find out if you have signs of heart disease may be worth your while.