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Obese Children Struggle With Joint Pain: Study

Experts say vicious cycle of inactivity, poor diet set overweight kids up for arthritis as adults

By Mary Brophy Marcus
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Nov. 1 (HealthDay News) -- As if obese children did not struggle enough, new research shows that heavier kids suffer pain in their lower joints, report poorer physical function and have worse mental health.

The researchers, from Nationwide Children's Hospital and The Ohio State University, who published their findings recently in the journal Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research, analyzed data from the medical charts of 175 obese children. They looked at age, sex, race, stage of puberty, lower extremity pain, physical function, psychosocial health and physical fitness.

Fifty-one of the children reported that they experience lower extremity pain (hips, knees, ankles and feet), and the same group scored lower on physical function and psychosocial health than those who felt no pain. The more obese a child was, the greater the decline in physical function, psychosocial health and fitness scores, the researchers reported.

"The whole subject is sad to me. Almost 30 percent of our children are overweight and obese," said Dr. Vonda Wright, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. She was not involved with the research.

Wright, who often works with young patients, explained: "Our hips and knees bear five to seven times our body weight. These little frames aren't supposed to be carrying 150 pounds of body weight. The heavier the child, the bigger the pressure on the joints and cartilage, and that can be painful. It sets up their soft tissue for inflammation."

Dr. Steven Cohen, a sports medicine surgeon at the Rothman Institute and medical director for the Philadelphia Marathon, said there are many reasons kids are obese, including hormonal issues, but being overweight is strongly connected to diet and inactivity.

"The inactivity related to watching TV and playing video games can have a significant impact on childhood obesity," said Cohen, who was not involved with the study. He said poor eating habits may also lead to diets deficient in calcium and vitamin D -- important nutrients for growing bones.

The concern is not just for their current pain, but their long-term bone health, Cohen added. "A few decades down the road they'll have a higher likelihood of developing arthritis because the load on their joints on a daily basis for years and years will lead to degenerative changes."

In a news release from the journal, the study authors, Dr. Sharon Bout-Tabaku and colleagues, expressed concern that pain in the feet, legs and hips of overweight youngsters may also reduce their ability and desire to exercise, which is key to helping them lose weight.

Wright, who specializes in mobility, said unless a child has another underlying bone problem, such as a stress fracture, "there's always a way to move, even when there's pain."

She advises parents to "make games out of moving. Get your kid in the pool -- a pool will unload the joints. Even if they're just in there playing around. Or take them to the gym with you and make up games on bikes. They don't have to do a hard-core workout, just play around with speeds," said Wright, who adds that the activity will also stimulate the brain and help lead to better mental health.

Wright also recommends cutting back on sugar, explaining that a high sugar diet can lead to inflammation. "Get your vitamin C from fruits, not high-sugar juices," she said.

"This research is another brick in the wall pointing to the devastating effects of heavy weight in children," Wright said. "We need to reverse the culture of sedentary children."

More information

For more on childhood obesity, go to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


SOURCES: Vonda Wright, M.D., orthopedic surgeon, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and author, Fitness After 40; Steven Cohen, M.D., sports medicine surgeon, Rothman Institute, Philadelphia, and medical director, Philadelphia Marathon; October 2012, Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research, online

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