Excerpts from the November 2012, Senior Spirit newsletter
It may seem counterintuitive that exercise can ease the pain of arthritis, which is most painful when moving, but a whole host of experts are jumping on the exercise bandwagon, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In fact, exercise may be the most effective form of pain control outside of drugs. While encompassing different forms, arthritis is basically inflammation of a joint. With osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, the cartilage around the joint wears out and causes the bones in the joint to rub against each other, creating inflammation and pain.
According to the CDC, 50 percent of adults age 65 or older reported receiving an arthritis diagnosis. Symptoms include joint pain, stiffness, swelling and aching. Not just striking seniors, arthritis is a serious chronic condition affecting 50 million adults in the U.S. and is the nation’s most common cause of disability (CDC publication, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report [MMWR Weekly] May 1, 2009).
Other Treatment Options
While no treatment can cure osteoarthritis, a wide array of treatment options may offer some relief: topical pain relievers, taping and bracing the affected areas, oral medication and surgery in extreme cases. Alternative care includes acupuncture and glucosamine, although both regimens have not proved as effective as once hoped. Vitamin D is another option, but the vote is still out on whether this vitamin can lessen the symptoms or the progression of the disease (About.com Guide).
Research has shown that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, while low in meats and milk products, can help reduce inflammation and pain in your joints. Other recommended treatments are reducing stress and losing weight. In fact, a recent article in Arthritis Today states excess body weight is a risk factor for the both the development and progression of osteoarthritis. “For every pound of body weight you gain, your knees gain three pounds of added stress; for hips, each pound translates into six times the pressure on the joints. After many years of carrying extra pounds, the cartilage that cushions the joints tends to break down more quickly than usual.”
Focusing on Exercise
In the past, healthcare providers told arthritis sufferers to rest rather than exercise. But today, researchers are finding that movement can actually improve physical functioning in arthritis patients, while alleviating depression and contributing to weight loss. Basically, three kinds of exercises have been found helpful for people with arthritis: range of motion, also called flexibility exercises; endurance or aerobic; and strengthening. Each one plays a role in maintaining and improving your ability to move and function (Arthritis Today):
Range of motion/flexibility: This is the ability to move your joints through the full motion they were designed for and thus relieve the stiffness that leads to pain. With osteoarthritis, pain and stiffness make it difficult to move certain joints outside of a small range, which can make even simple tasks challenging.
Range-of-motion exercises include gentle stretching and movements that take joints through their full span. Doing these exercises regularly—ideally every day—can help maintain and even improve joint flexibility.
Aerobic/endurance: Aerobic doesn’t mean jogging 10 miles but is any exercise that strengthens your heart and makes your lungs more efficient. This conditioning can also give you more stamina throughout the day and help control your weight by increasing the amount of calories your body uses. Water aerobics, cycling and walking are all suitable cardiovascular exercises you can do over age 60. Do aerobic activities at least three times a week for 30 to 60 minutes.
Strengthening: These exercises help maintain and improve your muscle strength. Not only does arthritis take a toll on muscles, but aging also depletes muscle mass. As a result, strength training is needed to build and maintain muscle. In particular, resistance training can help reverse aging, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Use exercise bands, in place of weights, for your resistance training. Other strengthening exercises to include in your routine include dumbbells or weight machines. You can use your own body weight in exercises such as wall squats and push-ups against a wall.
Before starting any exercise regimen, it is important to check with your primary care provider to make sure that you are otherwise healthy enough to engage in the type of exercise you are planning. It may also be beneficial to talk with a professional trainer at your local gym or health club to learn the safest way to use any exercise equipment.
Utilizing Ancient Wisdom
One new exercise that is proving to help arthritis sufferers is an ancient Chinese martial art. In 2009, researchers from Tufts University School of Medicine determined that patients over 65 with knee osteoarthritis who engaged in regular tai chi exercise improved physical function and experienced less pain (Science Daily, Nov. 1, 2009).
Tai chi (Chuan) features slow, rhythmic movements to induce mental relaxation and enhance balance, strength, flexibility and self-efficacy. Physical components of tai chi, described as a mind-body approach, are consistent with current exercise recommendations for osteoarthritis. Researchers believe the mental aspects of tai chi promote psychological well being, emotional satisfaction and perceptions of health that counteract the effects of negative pain. Watch this introductory video.
In the meantime, science is studying other options for treating arthritis, including early detection and diagnosis, as well as genetic factors; and material that promotes the growth of new cartilage. But until new treatments come along, it’s good to know that there are things you can do on your own to alleviate the symptoms.
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The Society of Certified Senior Advisors would love to hear from you. If you are suffering from the pains of arthritis, what has helped you to ease away the pain? Please share your story with us!
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