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Soldiers often wear 50 pounds of body armor on their backs while toting weapons and other equipment that can double that weight. They sit for hours as vehicles bounce over rough terrain. This repeated stress on joints has led to increasing diagnoses of joint pain and degenerative arthritis. Last July the journal Arthritis and Rheumatism linked the physical stress faced by modern soldiers with 108,266 cases of mechanical degenerative arthritis, or osteoarthritis between 1998 and 2008.
Not so fast, says new research. Dr. William H. Robinson from the Department of Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System and Stanford University thinks that more than wear and tear, immune-system changes may be the trigger for cartilage breakdown.
“This research can lead to a better quality of life for Veterans and others with osteoarthritis,” Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki said in a release. “This is an example of how VA’s research program can lead to mans significant breakthroughs in health care.”
Robinson’s team took samples from mice and humans with osteoarthritis and found that proteins moving freely through the bloodstream have a key role in spreading and osteoarthritis throughout the immune system. The proteins comprise the “complement system.” When functioning properly, the system supports the immune system by killing harmful bacteria and infected cells.
Part of the complement system includes the membrane attack complex (MAC) that forms and activates within the joints of humans and mice with osteoarthritis. Robinson believes that when the MAC becomes active, it induces the low-grade inflammation and enzyme production that characterizes the degenerative disease.
Robinson calls the team’s results a “paradigm change,” he is quoted in a press release from the Palo Alto VA. “People in the field predominantly view osteoarthritis as a matter of simple wear and tear, like tires gradually wearing out on a car.”
Osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease of the discs and joints that affects millions of people worldwide. A third of people ages 60 and above suffer from the disease that causes pain and stiffness in hands, necks, knees and other joints. The VA says that there may be more than six million World War II and Korean War veterans who could be affected. Robinson says one-third of people aged 60 or over suffer from osteoarthritis. VA estimates that more than 6 million World War II and Korean War Veterans are still living and could be affected. The finding may offer new insight into potential treatment. “Right now,” Robinson says, “we don’t have anything to offer osteoarthritis patients to treat their underlying disease. It would be incredible to find a way to slow it down.”