Osteoarthritis: Activity and Healthy Joints | Action Medical Research | Children's Charity

Osteoarthritis: How does physical activity keep joints healthy?

This research was completed on 31 March 2011

Published on 31 January 2008

Estimates suggest at least 5 million people in the UK have osteoarthritis.1,2 They suffer pain and stiffness in the joints, which can severely reduce quality of life. Professor Richard Aspden, of the University of Aberdeen, has been looking for natural repair processes that enable joints to stay healthy, by studying how physical activity affects the molecular processes taking place within joints. A better understanding of these processes could eventually lead to the development of new treatments for osteoarthritis.

What is the problem and who does it affect?

Each year, over 1 million people in the UK consult their GP because of osteoarthritis, which most commonly attacks the hips, knees, hands and spine of older people.3,4 “Osteoarthritis causes pain and stiffness, which can make all sorts of everyday activities difficult – walking, getting in and out of chairs, opening jars, turning keys and even sleeping,” explains Professor Aspden. Osteoarthritis is in fact the most common cause of disability in the UK.2

“Many people with osteoarthritis are prescribed painkillers or other drugs, such as steroids, which can relieve some of the symptoms, but cannot cure the disease,” says Professor Aspden. “Sadly, when everyday tasks like getting in and out of a car become increasingly difficult, and walking becomes painful and laboured, some people with osteoarthritis become reluctant to go out of the house. For all too many, depression and anxiety set in, because of failing health and increasing levels of pain.”

When symptoms do become severe, surgery can help – in some but not all joints. More than 58,000 hip replacements and 62,000 knee operations were performed in the UK in 2006/7 at a cost of £890 million, with the vast majority of joint replacements being for osteoarthritis.1

What did the project achieve?

Professor Aspden has been working to increase understanding of the natural processes that are involved in keeping joints healthy.

The bones in our joints are lined by cartilage, which enables the joint to move smoothly and freely. In osteoarthritis, loss of cartilage leads to pain and stiffness.

“All of the tissues in our joints – cartilage included – respond to mechanical factors. If we exercise they get stronger, if we stop exercising they waste away. We have been investigating how this happens, on a molecular level.”

Professor Aspden’s laboratory studies have involved using cartilage tissue and custom-built equipment, which simulates the stresses and strains that are placed on joints in two situations – when walking and during a sudden injury. He has focused on the role of a substance called FGF-18, which is produced in greater quantities by cartilage when the joint is under mechanical stress.

“Our results show that, while FGF-18 does not stop tissue damage from progressing, it does encourage cartilage cells to multiply. If funding allows, we plan more wide-ranging studies to investigate how FGF-18 interacts with other factors.” The ultimate goal is to find a cure for osteoarthritis. Work like this could be an important stepping stone along the way.

What are the researchers’ credentials?

Professor Aspden has a long and successful track record of researching osteoarthritis and other joint disorders, and has published over 100 peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals. He is based at the University of Aberdeen, one of the leading centres in the world for the study of musculoskeletal disorders.

Project LeaderProfessor Richard M Aspden DSc
Project team
  • Mrs Janet E Jeffrey PhD
  • Dr Mandy S Plumb PhD
LocationDepartment of Orthopaedics, University of Aberdeen
DurationThree years
Grant awarded31 October 2007
Start date1 April 2008
End date31 March 2011
Grant amount£158,875.00
Grant codeAP1143
AcknowledgementsSupported by generous donations from The MacRobert Trust and The Hugh Fraser Foundation

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1. Arthritis Research Campaign. ‘Arthritis: The Big Picture’, 2002. http://www.ipsos-mori.com/Assets/Docs/Archive/Polls/arthritis.pdf. Website accessed 18 June 2012.
2. The National Collaborating Centre for Chronic Conditions. Funded to produce guidelines for the NHS by NICE. Osteoarthritis. National clinical guideline for care and management in adults. Published by the Royal College of Physicians 2008. ISBN 978-1-86016-329-6. http://www.nice.org.uk/nicemedia/pdf/CG059FullGuideline.pdf. Website accessed 18 June 2012.
3. Arthritis Research UK. Osteoarthritis. http://www.arthritisresearchuk.org/arthritis-information/data-and-statis... Website accessed 18 June 2012.
4. NHS Choices. Osteoarthritis. http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/osteoarthritis/Pages/Introduction.aspx Website accessed 24 June 2012.

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