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Physical Labor Linked to Osteoarthritis in Medieval Era

Study of medieval bone remains reveals how excessive physical work caused osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis in the Middle Ages was caused by physical overwork, whereas today it is often linked to a sedentary lifestyle, according to a recent study that analyzed bone remains from the 11th and 12th centuries found in the Colosseum Archaeological Park.

The analysis of bone microstructure from four individuals from a Roman family, excavated from the Domus Tiberiana, was led by the AILA foundation, which fights against osteoarthritis and osteoporosis, in collaboration with the Colosseum archaeological park and two Sapienza University of Rome professors.

During the Middle Ages, the combination of agricultural work and manual labor led to intense exercises that contributed to notable muscular and bone development, particularly in the lower joints. However, this also led to the development of early osteoarthritis at an age that is considered young by today’s standards.

The study analyzed the remains of a woman between 20 and 30 years old, who had osteoarthritis due to cartilage erosion in the femur, but did not present osteoporosis. Another individual, a minor between 6 and 9 years old, whose sex is unknown, showed symptoms of anemia and a herniated disc, likely caused by lifting heavier weights for his age and physical build.

The Roman family in question had a plant-based diet supplemented with protein from animal sources, indicating that they were not malnourished. The use of an innovative microscope with an EDX probe allowed the bone samples to be observed in their natural state without any preparation procedure.

In contrast to the Middle Ages, when excessive loads developed osteoarthritis, today’s sedentary lifestyle can lead to osteoarthritis and osteoporosis. Francesco Bove, president of AILA, emphasized the importance of a balance between physical activity and age, warning about the dangers of modern society, including obesity. He noted that an individual carrying excess weight is equivalent to carrying a load of 25 kilograms on their back.

The study highlights the importance of a correct lifestyle for preserving bone health, both in the past, present, and future.

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