As paradoxical as this might seem, the only way to protect our joints when it comes to osteoarthritis is to move them regularly, and avoid inflicting excessive stress upon them.
We most often associate osteoarthritis, also known as OA, with the joint stiffness and deformed fingers suffered by the elderly. In reality however, this disease often rears its ugly head as early as the mid-forties.
Osteoarthritis is characterized by the breakdown of the cartilage in a joint. Cartilage is the elastic substance that covers the extremities of the bones and absorbs shocks. This most frequently occurs in the hips, knees, hands and spine. Furthermore, fragments of cartilage can also break off, generating pain and inflammation in the joint. With time, the cartilage can actually wear away entirely, causing the bones to rub together, which in turn leads to severe pain and decreased mobility in the afflicted joint.
As paradoxical as this might seem, the only way to protect our joints when it comes to osteoarthritis is to move them regularly, and avoid inflicting excessive stress upon them. In fact, certain sports and/or jobs that require repetitive movements and/or cause shocks can, over time, increase one’s susceptibility to osteoarthritis, or aggravate the disease. In addition, if you have suffered a joint injury that has not completely healed in the past, osteoarthritis might very well develop in that joint many years later.
The good news is individuals who remain active, within the limit of their physical capacities, generally experience less pain. They are also typically able to maintain their autonomy longer, and have better motor skills than their sedentary counterparts.
Although there is no cure for osteoarthritis, by educating ourselves on the disease and by modifying certain key lifestyle habits, such as being more active for example, we can minimize the impact it has on our life, and manage the pain it causes more effectively.
Relieving pain through physical activity There are various ways to alleviate the pain associated with osteoarthritis. The main one is achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight. In fact, excess weight imposes excessive stress on the body’s weight-bearing joints, such as the hips and knees, feet and spine. However, losing as little as 10 lbs. (4.5 kg) can help decrease pain in the hips and knees. If you are suffering from osteoarthritis in those joints, not only will reaching your healthy body weight improve your level of comfort, it will also benefit your health in countless ways.
Physical exercise is a key component in the treatment of osteoarthritis. Experts advise that imposing a period of rest for a painful joint can lead to muscle weakening, which in turn leads to pain exacerbation. In fact, studies have demonstrated that the muscles that surround the joint actually start to deteriorate after only three to six days of sedentariness, which is also associated with a loss of strength and flexibility. This loss will also likely contribute to pain exacerbation.
It is recommended that all adults, regardless of their age, do the equivalent of one hour of physical activity on most days of the week. However, this hour of activity can be divided into many shorter sessions throughout the course of the day. For example, you can start the day with a session of stretching, and later on, you can do a low-impact activity such as gardening, walking, snow-shoeing, cross-country skiing, biking or swimming. Yoga and tai chi are also excellent choices because they combine low-impact exercises and stretching, which is particularly beneficial for individuals who suffer from osteoarthritis. Many sufferers might also find acupuncture, relaxation and massages quite helpful.
We should integrate physical activity to our daily routine, and it should become as fundamental as brushing our teeth. It is important to remember however that the activities we perform at work, or while doing household chores, cannot completely replace exercises that are specifically conceived to correct the problems caused by osteoarthritis.
There are countless ways to be active. Solo or group activities, indoor or outdoor activities, the choice is entirely yours! The first step is to choose activities you enjoy, and those that help relax and motivate you everyday.
If you are suffering from severe osteoarthritis with limb deformation, severe pain and muscle weakness, or if you have recently undergone surgery, you should definitely consult a physiotherapist before beginning an exercise program. This health professional will teach you exercises that will not put too much stress on your joints. Not only will these exercises improve your flexibility, they will also improve your mobility. If need be, an occupational therapist can also help you choose a walking-aid or various devices to help you perform everyday activities more easily.
What about medications? You can also rely on medications to help alleviate pain. Acetaminophen is the medication of choice for minor to moderate pain, as it is usually considered safe and effective for most individuals, provided they respect the recommended daily dosage. Anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen, may also be useful. However, you must speak with your pharmacist to make sure they are not contra-indicated by other health problems and/or prescription medications. Furthermore, analgesic creams or gels massaged directly onto the affected joint can also provide some temporary pain relief.
In some cases, a physician might choose to inject a medication directly in the joint. It can either be a corticosteroid, also known as cortisone, to decrease inflammation, or viscocupplementation, the injection of a viscous substance to decrease the rubbing between bones.
Do natural health products really work? Many people are tempted to try various natural health products, notably chondroitin, glucosamine or MSM (methylsulfonylmethane), to relieve the pain caused by osteoarthritis. You should know however that few safety and efficacy studies have been conducted thus far, and that their results are mainly inconclusive. Regardless of this fact, many sufferers have reported that these products actually assuage their pain.
It is important to remind you that natural health products can also be contra-indicated by certain health conditions and diseases, as well as certain prescription medications. This is why you should always speak with your physician and pharmacist before you start taking them. Furthermore, as with all other medication, it is imperative you respect the recommended daily dosage.
Surgery as a last resort When a joint is badly damaged, or when the pain is relentless, the treating physician might decide to opt for surgery. Minor interventions, such as arthroscopy for example, can be performed to remove loose fragments of cartilage and/or bone from a joint.
When all else fails, joint replacement surgery may be the only recourse. This procedure consists in replacing the natural joint, hip, knee or thigh, with a metal prosthesis. Because the life expectancy for an artificial joint is only 10 to 20 years, physicians tend to delay these interventions as much as possible, to avoid having to perform this serious surgery more than once.
In conclusion Because they have to contend with joint pain and stiffness on a daily basis, many individuals who suffer from osteoarthritis tend to believe that by decreasing their level of physical activity, they will also alleviate the pain. But the reality is that doing physical activities specifically adapted to their condition is the basis of all osteoarthritis treatment. So go on, get moving! Your joints will thank you for it!