Why Are Women More Likely to Develop Arthritis Than Men?

Arthritis in women


Imagine waking up every morning with stiff, aching joints. The stiffness makes even the simplest tasks, like dressing or making breakfast, a painful ordeal. For millions of women worldwide, this is not just a hypothetical scenario but one they encounter daily. Why? They have arthritis.

Far from being a single entity, arthritis encompasses over one hundred different diseases affecting the joints – and women withstand the most of this debilitating illness. The numbers speak for themselves. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 60% of all arthritis cases in the United States affect women. So, you might wonder: why are women more likely to fall victim to this painful condition?

Why Women Get Arthritis More Often

It’s a tough reality but women are likely to deal with the pain and limitations of arthritis compared to men. Part of this predisposition has to do with the hormonal roller coaster that females go through. Those monthly cycles, pregnancies, and menopause can throw a woman’s body for a loop and increase the risk of getting an arthritis diagnosis.

Estrogen is a key player in this scenario. For women who have rheumatoid arthritis, times when estrogen levels fluctuate – like after having a baby or during menopause – can trigger nasty flare-ups of joint pain and inflammation. Rheumatoid arthritis tends to first rear its ugly head for women right around ages 30-60, just when their hormones are shifting gears into menopause mode. Research shows women are three times more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis than men.

Major hormone changes collide with peak years for developing rheumatoid arthritis. No wonder so many women struggle with this debilitating disease during this phase of life. Biology can deal the female gender a tough hand when it comes to arthritis susceptibility.

Pregnancy Is Another Critical Period

Pregnancy can be a time of joy and anticipation, but it can also be a double-edged sword for arthritis. During pregnancy, you produce more of a hormone called relaxin. This hormone helps loosen your ligaments and joints for easier delivery, but it can also cause joint instability. Unfortunately, unstable joints also increase the risk of osteoarthritis (OA). As if the physical demands of pregnancy weren’t enough, the added weight and stress on the joints can worsen pre-existing arthritis conditions or trigger the onset of new ones.

Menopause is also a time of hormonal upheaval. As estrogen levels drop after menopause, it increases susceptibility to OA, particularly in the hands, knees, and hips. The protective effects of estrogen on cartilage and bone diminish, leading to increased joint wear and tear. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, knowing that the very hormones that help sustain and nourish our bodies can also cause joints to break down.

The Role of Genetics

Women are also at higher risk of arthritis due to genetics. A gene called HLA-DRB1 that more women have makes women more likely to develop arthritis. Plus, the X chromosome (of which women have two and men have one) can create antibodies that attack healthy tissues, including joints. Researchers think this is one reason women are more likely to develop autoimmune diseases.

Then there’s the obesity issue. Women are more likely to be obese, and excess body weight puts more stress on weight-bearing joints, such as the knees and hips. This increased stress can lead to the breakdown of cartilage and osteoarthritis (OA). Plus, women have a wider pelvis, which increases risk for knee injuries, a common trigger for osteoarthritis. It’s a vicious cycle, where the pain and limitations of arthritis can make it harder to maintain a healthy weight and stay active, further worsening the condition.

What You Can Do to Lower Your Risk

You can’t pick your genes, but you can control your lifestyle. As you might expect, lifestyle factors contribute to the odds of developing arthritis. But there are things you can do, backed by science, that may lower your risk:

  • Stay active and keep moving – Gentle, low-impact exercises like walking, swimming, or yoga can be a joint’s best friend. Don’t let arthritis stop you from breaking a sweat.
  • Slim down if needed – Extra weight is extra stress on your joints. Shedding even a few pounds can make an enormous difference in taking the load off.
  • Don’t be a couch potato – A sedentary lifestyle is asking for joint trouble. Keep active and try to minimize extended periods of inactivity.
  • Eat a rainbow – A diet rich in fruits, veggies, and anti-inflammatory foods like fatty fish can help calm joint inflammation.
  • Ditch the cigs – Smoking increases arthritis risk and can worsen joint damage. Do your body a favor and quit.
  • Strengthen your muscles – Building muscle strength, especially around joints, can provide much-needed joint support and stability.
  • Listen to your body – If a particular activity causes persistent joint pain, modify, or avoid it to prevent further injury.
  • Manage stress – Chronic stress can exacerbate inflammation. Find healthy outlets to keep those stress hormones in check.
  • The key is being proactive about joint health through a balanced lifestyle approach. Simple tweaks can go a long way in preventing or delaying the onset of arthritis down the road.


  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Arthritis-Related Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/data_statistics/arthritis-related-stats.htm
  • Kvien, T. K., Uhlig, T., Ødegård, S., & Heiberg, M. S. (2006). Epidemiological aspects of rheumatoid arthritis: the sex ratio. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1069(1), 212-222.
  • Sammaritano, L. R. (2012). Menopause in patients with autoimmune diseases. Autoimmunity reviews, 11(6-7), A430-A436.
  • Goemaere, S., Ackerman, C., Goethals, K., De Keyser, F., Van der Straeten, C., Verbruggen, G., … & Veys, E. M. (1990). Onset of symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis in relation to age, sex and menopausal transition. The Journal of rheumatology, 17(12), 1620-1622.
  • de Klerk, B. M., Schiphof, D., Groeneveld, F. P., Koes, B. W., van Osch, G. J., van Meurs, J. B., & Bierma-Zeinstra, S. M. (2009). No clear association between female hormonal aspects and osteoarthritis of the hand, hip, and knee: a systematic review. Rheumatology, 48(9), 1160-1165.
  • Wluka, A. E., Cicuttini, F. M., & Spector, T. D. (2000). Menopause, oestrogens, and arthritis. Maturitas, 35(3), 183-199.
  • Holroyd, C. R., Edwards, C. J., & Cooper, C. (2010). The determinants of osteoarthritis: Hormonal and genetic factors. Osteoarthritis: Diagnosis, Treatment and Surgery, 1-16.
  • Tobón, G. J., Youinou, P., & Saraux, A. (2010). The environment, geo-epidemiology, and autoimmune disease: Rheumatoid arthritis. Autoimmunity reviews, 9(5), A288-A292.
  • Felson, D. T., & Zhang, Y. (1998). An update on the epidemiology of knee and hip osteoarthritis with a view to prevention. Arthritis & Rheumatism: Official Journal of the American College of Rheumatology, 41(8), 1343-1355.
  • Theis, K. A., Helmick, C. G., & Hootman, J. M. (2007). Arthritis burden and impact are greater among US women than men: intervention opportunities. Journal of women’s health, 16(4), 441-453.

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