The Link Between Diabetes and Arthritis

It seems like such a cruel double whammy. More than half of all Americans who have diabetes also have arthritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Just what causes the two to be present together is unclear.

"We don't have any evidence that diabetes causes arthritis or that arthritis causes diabetes," Chad Helmick, MD, medical epidemiologist for the arthritis program at the CDC, told the Wall Street Journal. "Arthritis is very common among people with diabetes, even the young. We don't know why there is an association."

One possible explanation for why people with Type 1 diabetes come down with rheumatoid arthritis is that both are autoimmune diseases. "And we know that when people have one autoimmune disease, they are at an increased risk of having another," says Bruce Solitar, MD, associate professor of rheumatology at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City.

Adds Stuart Weiss, MD, who specializes in endocrinology and is based in New York City: "Some evidence suggests that the inflammation that causes diabetes also causes arthritis. But we need to learn a lot more about it."

It's not only type 1 diabetics who get arthritis. Type 2 diabetics get it, too, Solitar notes. "It's very common for type 2 diabetics to have the wear and tear of osteoarthritis," he says. "Diabetics tend to have less flexible tendon structures. They have a lot more joint pain and they tend to get it at a younger age than people who don't have diabetes."

When diabetics with arthritis start finding it difficult to cope with pain and stiffness, they tend to move around less, which makes a bad situation worse. Some 29.8 percent of the adults with both arthritis and diabetes aren't physically active, according to the CDC. This compares with 21 percent of people who have diabetes but not arthritis.

If you have arthritis and diabetes, here are some ideas for how to feel better.

  • Stretching exercises are really important to maintain flexibility, so ask your doctor to recommend what's appropriate for you.
  • Exercise can be tremendously effective at alleviating pain and stiffness. Among the joint-friendly activities to try, says the CDC, are walking, swimming, and biking. You could also ask your doctor about arthritis-specific exercise interventions.
  • A variety of anti-inflammatory oral medications can help with arthritis, Solitar explains, but be sure to keep your doctor in the loop. He or she will check to make sure your kidneys are healthy before prescribing a medication.
  • Injections of cortisone also can be helpful as a short-term fix for pain and stiffness, Solitar says.
  • Acupuncture can be helpful to relieve the pain and stiffness of arthritis.
  • Eating well is important, Weiss says. "A healthy diet is the cornerstone of treatment for any chronic disease," he says. "People with diabetes and arthritis should eat healthy meals and get plenty of vegetables."

"Quick Stats on Arthritis." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hensley, Scott. "Arthritis and Diabetes: Imperfect Together." 8 May 2008. Wall Street Journal.