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Southern Orthopaedic Sports Medicine
Where the science of medicine meets the art of living.

Addressing the Growing Epidemic

By Evan F. Ekman, M.D.

Let’s face it. We are getting bigger. Our children are getting bigger. Not simply the ‘bigger’ we measure with another mark on the bathroom door, but the ‘bigger’ that has created a concern among health officials in the United States. In fact, some are calling the problem of obesity in America an epidemic.

There is no doubt that obesity in the early years may predict any number of health-related problems. While the focus of this article is the musculoskeletal problems that can result from a growing beltline, it could certainly be useful to review some of the potentially very serious problems that are more common in obesity:

  1. Heart attacks are more common in people who are obese.
  2. Blood pressure problems are more common in people who are obese.
  3. Adult onset diabetes is more common in people who are obese.
  4. Circulatory and respiratory problems are more common in people with weight problems.
  5. Equally important, patients with obesity generally report a quality of life that suggests a desire for improvement.

What about the bones and joints? Are they effected by obesity? Absolutely. It may be useful to divide the problems into short term and long term. Short-term problems are those that occur relatively early in life. They include back pain, foot pain, and muscle pain that can occur virtually anywhere in the lower extremities. Imagine spending the next month performing your routine activities with a backpack full of bricks. Perhaps one of the biggest short-term problems is the following: because of the pain in the lower extremities and the relative feeling of immobility, it becomes difficult to assume a routine of cardiovascular fitness that would lead to a healthy lifestyle. Plantar fascitis, knee inflammation, tendonitis, and Achilles tendonitis can all becomes challenges to the heavier citizen attempting to initiate a walking or jogging program.

Long term problems related to obesity can be among the most debilitating a doctor sees. To best understand the long-term problems, a quick description of cartilage is useful. Cartilage lines the end of bones. It is hard and smooth so joint surfaces that rub together will so with very little friction. If cartilage becomes injured or worn, the surface becomes irregular, inflammation occurs, and pain results. This is arthritis and it hurts! Simply put, the heavier you are, the more likely you are to develop cartilage wear and injury to these joint surfaces.

There is also evidence to suggest that obesity effects the bones and joints of children. Children who are obese more commonly complain of joint pain. While obesity probably does not “stunt” a child’s growth, there are certain bone and joint disorders that are more commonly diagnosed in obese children.

Identifying a problem only becomes useful if it leads you toward a solution. A healthy lifestyle with a routine of cardiovascular fitness is the solution. Easy enough said, but challenges exist. People are busier. The workday is longer. Kids now have many recreational alternatives that don’t involve physical activity. Scientists will not likely be able to give you another hour in the day, but without a doubt, it is in your best interest to participate in a routine of cardiovascular fitness, not only for your heart, lungs, and waistline, but also for your bones and joints.

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