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updated: 11/28/2010 9:00 AM

Vitamin K may help in treating osteoarthritis

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We know that eating green vegetables is good for health, but it might also be an important factor in the prevention of arthritis of the knee. Recent medical research suggested that vitamin K, found in leafy, green vegetables, has a significant role in the prevention of osteoarthritis.

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis of the knees and hands. It is the result of a progressive wearing away of the cartilage of the joint, exposing the bare bone within. OA is most common in people over 50 years old. There are risk factors including being overweight, genetics, and trauma to the knee and surrounding tissue. There is very little research about actually preventing OA or possible nutritional factors associated with it.

Over 45 million Americans are diagnosed with OA, and it is the most common reason for disability. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2003 the estimated medical cost OA of was $128 billion. In 2010, it has increased by an additional $5 billion to $6 billion. The increasing cost of prescription drugs accounts for the largest proportion of this increase, and now accounts for 23 percent (about $30 billion) of arthritis-related expenses. It is a serious disease that is only getting worse because of the increasing number of people over 50 and the national obesity epidemic.

Treatment for OA can be effective, but outside of physical therapy, most medical approaches focus on reducing the symptoms and eventual knee replacement. It would seem that this is one condition that, truly, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Prevention might be as simple as increasing daily amounts of vitamin K, either by eating green vegetables or taking supplements. Recent research from the Multi-Center Osteoarthritis study revealed that vitamin K has an important role in preventing OA. Vitamin K is necessary for a number of biochemical processes that involve bone and cartilage formation and maintenance.

In this study, vitamin K levels of 1,180 people with an average age of 62 without OA were followed over 30 months. Those with vitamin K deficiency at the beginning of the study had a 43 percent increased risk of developing OA. Vitamin K deficiency was also associated with OA occurring in both knees. Vitamin K deficient participants also had three times the risk of significant cartilage damage and a 77 percent increased risk of osteophyte (bone spur) formation.

This research suggests that simply eating better or taking vitamin K supplements could prevent or slow OA in a number of people. That translates into saving billions of dollars per year in medical costs as well as reducing the incidence of disability, pain and suffering. It seems to me that we need more of this kind of research.

• Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Hospital Network.

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