Osteoarthritis (OA) is a degenerative joint disease where the primary risk factor is age. It’s caused by the deterioration of cartilage, a type of tissue that cushions your joints. This results in pain, stiffness, and loss of mobility.

Research into the effect of COVID-19 on osteoarthritis symptoms is still ongoing. However, COVID-19 seems to worsen symptoms of osteoarthritis in some people. This may be due to the increase in system-wide inflammation while your body responds to the virus.

Read on to learn about what we know so far about how COVID-19 — and life during the pandemic — may impact people with osteoarthritis.

Currently, there is not a large body of evidence suggesting that COVID-19 triggers the onset of osteoarthritis. Research into the potential impact of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, on cartilage degeneration or synovial inflammation in joints is still in its early stages.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus causes an inflammatory response in the body. Low grade inflammation of the synovial membrane, which lines your joints (synovitis), has been found to trigger the onset of osteoarthritis.

Data indicates that low grade inflammation can also generate a large number of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which may contribute to cartilage destruction. This could ultimately cause or worsen osteoarthritis. However, a definitive connection between COVID-19, inflammation, and osteoarthritis has not been established in research.

There’s a number of other factors that can worsen osteoarthritis symptoms that aren’t directly related to SARS-CoV-2 effects on your body. This includes impact due to lifestyle changes during the pandemic, as people have spent more time in quarantine, temporarily lost access to spaces to exercise, and gone out less.

A 2021 review of multiple studies found that people with physical disabilities and chronic conditions became more sedentary during the pandemic. Participation in physical activities that support joint health often lessened due to gym closures and reduced social activity.

Exercises that support muscle strengthening and flexibility have been shown to improve OA symptoms. The inability to enjoy physical pursuits and sports might also lead to weight gain, which can contribute to osteoarthritis severity.

The pandemic has also caused a worsening of mental health conditions and symptoms. Depression and anxiety can increase stress levels and contribute to you forgoing hobbies and activities that can be good for overall well-being and joint health.

Common osteoarthritis symptoms include joint and muscle pain. These are also commonly reported symptoms of COVID-19. Not everyone will experience muscle and joint pain during a case of COVID-19, and those who do often have symptoms temporarily.

COVID-19 has been tentatively linked to worsening osteoarthritis symptoms. It has not been proven to trigger the onset of osteoarthritis. For many people, the muscle and joint pain you experience during your illness is not due to osteoarthritis.

However, 2022 research explains that studies on musculoskeletal pain in people with COVID-19 indicate that these symptoms can persist for 6 months or longer after the initial infection. Some affected people experienced widespread joint and muscle pain throughout the body. Others had pain in specific joints, including the knee, foot, ankle, and shoulder. These areas of the body are also affected by osteoarthritis.

It’s hard to know how COVID-19 will continue to impact our daily lives moving forward. Taking care of your overall health is essential, even if this viral infection limits your access to regular hobbies, exercise, or social spaces.

Consider incorporating some of these tips for staying active and engaged during the pandemic:

  • take brisk walks or enjoy other physical activities outdoors
  • use an at-home treadmill or exercise bike
  • exercise at home with the help of free online videos and tutorials
  • if you have a SilverSneakers membership through Medicare Part C or a Medigap plan, you have access to live video exercise classes you can attend from home
  • maintain a balanced diet, which includes eating lots of vegetables, fruits, and lean protein
  • eat foods high in phytonutrients and dietary polyphenols, such as freeze-dried strawberries and tart cherry juice, which may help slow the progression of osteoarthritis
  • continue to see your doctor regularly to discuss symptom and pain management

You and your doctor can continually assess your treatment regimen based on your symptoms. Your doctor may recommend that you see a physical or occupational therapist, particularly if you are unable to exercise at home.

Treatments for OA include:

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) medications, including NSAIDs (Aleve, Advil) and acetaminophen (Tylenol for mild to moderate pain relief
  • prescription medications for chronic pain, including duloxetine (Cymbalta) and diclofenac (Voltaren)
  • OTC topical arthritis creams, including OTC Voltaren gel and brand-name prescription Pennsaid gel
  • cortisone injections
  • hyaluronic acid injections

Having osteoarthritis should not stop you from getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

Vaccinations and booster shots are your best way of reducing your risk for serious or fatal disease. Vaccination may not be advisable for some people who are immunocompromised or who have drug allergies. Reach out to your doctor for vaccine counseling.

Other strategies that reduce your risk of getting or spreading COVID-19 include social distancing and wearing a face mask. Make sure to wear a high quality mask, such as a KN95 or KF94.

In general, avoid crowded areas, prioritizing outdoor gatherings or events with a vaccination or mask requirement. Avoid contact with people who have COVID-19 and follow quarantine measures from your doctor if you contract the virus.

Have rapid home tests on hand for if and when you need them and seek out COVID-19 testing after a possible exposure. COVID-19 Test-to-Treat centers are now an option and may also potentially provide access to anti-viral medications, like Paxlovid, at no cost.

Regular testing, even if you don’t have any symptoms, may catch a case of COVID-19 early, helping you take proper quarantine measures. Some cases of the viral infection are asymptomatic, so you may transmit the virus without ever feeling sick.

Both osteoarthritis and COVID-19 can cause muscle and joint pain. Many people who manage these symptoms during a case of COVID-19 will only have to do so temporarily, although some have to manage them for several months.

For people with existing osteoarthritis, COVID-19 may worsen symptoms by increasing systemic inflammation. However, no concrete connection has been made between COVID-19 and osteoarthritis onset or symptom impact, so these findings are tentative, and research is ongoing.

The wide-ranging lifestyle impact of the pandemic has reduced people’s activity levels and increased rates of depression, anxiety, and stress. These factors can also worsen OA symptoms and other chronic conditions.

OA and COVID-19 are both treatable, together and separately.

However, the best way to help ensure you do not contract SARS-CoV-2 and develop COVID-19, and experience its potential impact on your joints is to practice scientifically proven measures for preventing viral transmission. This includes masking, social distancing, and getting vaccinated if eligible.