Many consider osteoarthritis to be an inevitable part of aging. On the contrary, it is a complex condition affecting people of all ages, including men and women in the workforce. Many of the multiple causes and contributing factors can be prevented or modified through earlier detection and diagnosis.
Addressing Modifiable Risk Factors
Education efforts to promote prevention of OA should focus on those at the greatest risk for developing the condition. Following are three key modifiable risk factors:
Weight: Individuals who are overweight or obese are approximately three times more likely to develop OA than those who are a normal weight. This key modifiable risk factor can be addressed with lifestyle change including diet and exercise. (EPIC p. 10)
Level of Physical Activity: Another modifiable risk factor is a sedentary lifestyle. Forty percent of those with arthritis are inactive. Being physically active has been shown to decrease pain, improve function, delay disability thereby improving quality of life and overall well-being. Regular exercise can help in the prevention and management of other chronic diseases as well, including heart disease and diabetes, two of the most common comorbidities that accompany osteoarthritis. (OAAA)
Injury and overuse: According to the Arthritis Foundation, repetitive movements and injuries to joints can cause cartilage to wear away more quickly. Taking steps to reduce workplace injuries, including those related to repetitive movements, can go a long way towards prevention of OA. Consider cross training employees in various job tasks where appropriate. Promote proper ergonomics including good posture and body mechanics.
With osteoarthritis, diagnosing and treating people earlier can lower overall costs and improve workplace productivity by slowing down the progression of the disease using targeted interventions. Unfortunately, many people with OA don’t seek medical care. They attribute their pain to the normal course of aging.
There is currently no screening for OA – it is typically diagnosed in a doctor’s office using a combination of medical and family history, physical exam, lab findings and x-rays. This is where focused initiatives at the workplace can play a role in the earlier detection of the condition. This requires educating employees about the signs and symptoms of OA, knowing when to see the doctor, and being prepared with questions to ask. (EPIC p. 10)
Worksite Wellness Programs
Educational programs and initiatives offered at the worksite can achieve two objectives: Support those already diagnosed with OA and create awareness among the general population to promote:
- Early detection and prevention of OA
- Healthy eating, weight loss/maintenance
- Active lifestyle including strength and flexibility exercises and overall cardiovascular fitness
- Injury prevention through ergonomics training, use of good body mechanics (e.g. for lifting and cross training in various job tasks where possible and logical)
Education about osteoarthritis-specific topics such as signs and symptoms, risk factors and causes, and tips for prevention can be accomplished using articles and information in existing newsletters, websites and company intranet. Where appropriate, this information can also be woven into existing health improvement programs. It’s important to consider potential barriers to participation in wellness and health improvement programs including cost, time commitment and individual values and expectations.
Offering evidence-based physical activity programs that are appropriate for those with osteoarthritis, but not specifically branded as such, helps to address the needs of the employee population regardless of physical limitations. This will do a lot towards removing barriers that often keep people most in need of physical activity away, including these concerns:
- Exercise will make the pain worse and/or cause further joint damage
- Uncertainty about what types of activities are safe for joints and how much to do
When planning a communication strategy for any health improvement/disease management initiative, it’s important to consider using multiple channels, both internal to your organization and external with vendor partners.
The challenge for most organizations is managing the amount of information going to employees from across the organization. How do you avoid overwhelming individuals and ensuring important messaging doesn’t become wallpaper? One strategy is to work with vendor partners on co-communication when topics logically overlap (e.g. diabetes and vision care). This strategy can also work by combining a variety of messages in one wellness or health education communication. For example, incorporating statistics about the benefits of exercise for people with arthritis in a promotion for a walking program or other physical activity initiative.
The following resources are available from trusted non-profit organizations for communicating with employees about osteoarthritis:
Osteoarthritis Action Alliance
Centers for Disease Control (CDC)