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Welcome To Your 40s … And Arthritis

I’m far too young for those aches and pains my older relatives always complain about, right?

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Illustration of a woman putting cream on her knuckles where arthritis pain can occur.
Cindy Echevarria
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People tell me that I look young for my age, and while I realize they are just being nice, a small part of me wants to believe them. No major wrinkles yet and just a few gray hairs that I can brush out of the way. I always figured that internally I was holding up just as well. So, when I started having pain in my index finger and lower back I was sure there had to be a logical explanation.

The hand pain must be due to clicking around on a mouse all day at work. (Or perhaps playing one too many games on my smartphone?) Sitting in a bad chair must be hurting my back, along with being overweight. I was simply positive that there had to be a reasonable explanation for my discomfort, because at 42 I’m far too young for those “aches and pains” my older relatives always complain about, right?

My doctor ordered X-rays and I waited for her office to call with that perfectly reasonable explanation for my not-at-all-age-related suffering. Imagine my surprise when I finally speak with the nurse and he calmly states: “You have a little bit of arthritis in your finger and lower back.” Say what?! Arthritis is what my grandmother had in her 80s, not me at this still relatively youthful I-can-still-stay-out-past-midnight stage of life.

While on the phone with the nurse, my mind starts racing and I pepper him with questions: “Is this early onset? Do I have to start some sort of antiarthritis protocol? What could possibly have caused this to happen now?” (Surely medical journals would want to analyze this extremely premature case of arthritis, I thought.)

No, my nurse calmly replies, it’s common wear and tear, and is perfectly normal “at your age.” Ouch. “Really? In your early 40s? Aren’t I too young?” Nope, he insists again, perfectly normal.

It turns out he is right. While the rates of arthritis are higher for people over age 65, nearly 30 percent of people age 45 to 64 years reported doctor-diagnosed arthritis from 2013 to 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And about one in three people age 18 to 64 have arthritis or similar symptoms, according to the Arthritis Foundation.

Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common form of the condition, which is also called degenerative joint disease or “wear and tear” arthritis. The pain points most often arise in in the hands, hips and knees, and it is more common among women than men.

Luckily there are steps you can take to ease the pain and prevent further deterioration.

An initial round of oral steroids and continued use of a topical gel, which I’ve dubbed my “arthritis cream,” have helped to reduce my pain significantly. Adjusting my workout routine, losing weight and the use of ergonomic desk chairs and computer mice also have been helpful. I plan to start physical therapy soon, and I hope that with all of this combined effort I will be able to avoid worsening symptoms and the need for medication or surgery in the future. While these are not things that I expected to have to worry about quite yet, I’ve come to accept my new reality.

This odd new phase of early midlife was illustrated quite clearly to me recently while I was applying ample amounts of my “arthritis cream” as I got ready for my friend’s bachelorette celebration. I guess in my early 40s I’m still young enough to party, but I will need some extra preparation time before heading out the door.