As the weather warms, we return to outdoor activities like running, tennis, gardening and golf. All of these require the spine, hips, knees and hands to be agile and work in unison. But how do you exercise if your knee creaks, shoulder tweaks or hip aches?
As we age, our joints age, too. For some people, aging joints bring the pain of osteoarthritis. Arthritis is caused when the cartilage wears away, and the bone compensates by depositing more bone. Pain ensues and permanent joint damage follows. Secondary arthritis occurs as a result of other illnesses, such as rheumatoid arthritis, gout, or diabetes. Additional risk factors for arthritis include obesity, injury, poor muscle usage, and poor physical habits.
Almost one-quarter of adults over the age of 45 have arthritis. More women suffer with arthritis than men, perhaps due to hormonal differences. Knees are the most often affected, with hands and hips often afflicted, too.
Indications of arthritis are pain, stiffness and swelling. Some people may have radiographic (x-ray) evidence of osteoarthritis, but this does not mean they will have symptoms. If you have redness, warmth and tenderness in a joint, seek medical attention as you may have a smoldering infection.
Treat arthritis with medications and non-pharmacologic interventions. Discuss pain medications with your health-care provider as drugs can have side effects including bleeding, gastritis and constipation.
Physical therapy can help to improve joint mobility and strengthen muscles supporting the joint. Acupuncture patients have less pain and increased mobility. Surgery is generally a last resort.
Losing weight can help with mobility. Those extra pounds on knees and hips lead to joint overuse and increased risk for arthritis. For every pound lost, there is a 4-pound reduction in the load on joints.
The Catch-22 is that if we exercise, we have less pain. So how do you exercise if you have joint pain? Very carefully. Talk to your doctor or physical therapist to set up an exercise program based on your body’s limitations.
Try non-weight bearing exercises such as bicycling, swimming or water aerobics to help protect the joints. Increasing flexibility is good for joints, and stretching programs, such as yoga and tai chi, can reduce pain and improve mobility. Purposeful walking, whether around the block, on a treadmill, or at the golf course, involves multiple muscle groups and is a low-impact way to exercise effortlessly.
Exercising to the point of pain is not recommended. If soreness occurs, arnica or capsaicin topical rubs can help, as can applications of heat or ice. Resting the joint for a period of 24 hours can be helpful; however, non-use of a joint over the long term can create loss of function and immobility. If pain is recurrent for greater than two weeks, seek medical attention. Remember, pain is the body’s way of saying “Stop!”
Move more. Enjoy the great weather. Be well.
Sylvia E. Morris, MD, MPH, is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and holistic medicine. In addition to her clinical practice, she is a community health advocate as well as a medical consultant and commentator for media outlets such as The Weather Channel, Atlanta Fox 5 News, and CNN.com. Tell her what you think on Facebookand follow her on Twitter.