Exercise for Arthritis

In the United States, 50 million adults and more than 300,000 children suffer from some form of the more than 100 types of arthritis and related conditions. Arthritis is caused by anything that causes inflammation within a joint. The most common form of arthritis is Osteoarthritis (OA). Also known as degenerative joint disease, OA is often related to normal ‘wear and tear’ of the body and sometimes seen following prior injuries.  

Out of the 50 million adults who suffer from arthritis, 32.5 million suffer from osteoarthritis. OA most commonly affects adults over 40 years of age and usually progresses with age. It can affect anyone regardless of race, socioeconomic status, and gender, although women are often more frequently affected than men. There seems to be some genetic component to osteoarthritis as well, which means if you have family members that suffered from OA you might as well. Common areas affected include knees, spine, hips, shoulders and hands.

What causes OA? Osteoarthritis is related to the deterioration of the smooth, protective lining of the joints called cartilage. As this lining thins or breaks down, inflammation develops in response, which can cause pain, swelling and stiffness. This can eventually affect the structure of the bone it is made to protect. Because of this, OA can reduce function and mobility. In severe cases, some people may have difficulty performing daily tasks. In fact, OA is the leading cause of disability in the United States.

Managing OA comes at a hefty price. The economic burden is $140 billion per year in the United States alone with individual costs averaging around $5700. Though we cannot change genetics or the ‘wear and tear’ that we’ve already accumulated, there are many ways to be proactive about the health of your joints to help modify this burdensome disease.  

A dangerous cycle is in play when joint pain incites fear and leads to exercise avoidance and deconditioning measures. Disuse can make osteoarthritis pain worse and cartilage degeneration happen faster. Avoiding activities and exercise can also impact mental health and overall health as well. If you combat osteoarthritis with movement and activity, you have the ability to make a difference in long-term pain and function. The same is true for other forms of arthritis such as rheumatoid arthritis and other painful conditions such as fibromyalgia. 

Joints are like parts of an automobile. Just like an automobile needs regular care and maintenance, our bodies are the same.  Joints, like auto parts, serve a specific purpose and are subject to breaking down over time. Joints are the areas where bones come together and supported by ligaments, tendons and muscles that act as our ‘internal bracing system.’ When these areas are maintained and strong, joints are better protected. The body, like an automobile, must be kept in good alignment. When joints aren’t well supported or the alignment is off, joints are prone to wearing out much faster. 

Also, much like an auto is meant to be driven, joints are meant to be used. Disuse leads to progression of arthritis. Moderate exercise has been shown to decrease risk of development or advancement of osteoarthritis, with or without weight loss. Movement also helps support joint health. As a joint moves healthy joint (synovial) fluid is circulated, lubricating the joint and feeding the cartilage. Although exercise seems like it would be bad for arthritis, it actually can help protect the joints and slow degenerative changes long term when performed with good alignment. Movement is good for the joints!

Having extra body weight can also affect arthritis pain and disease progression. With walking, 2-3 times body weight is transmitted through the knees, which becomes more than 6X body weight with running.  That means even a 5lb weight loss can result in a significant reduction of force into the knees. Several studies show even small amounts of weight loss can decrease pain by 50%. Unfortunately, arthritis pain can make exercise hard and lack of exercise can make obesity worse which can be a very tough cycle to break. Low impact exercise can be a great place to start. A certified trainer or medical professional can guide you on a safe, low impact exercise program that can help with this while teaching you how to protect the joint, optimize alignment, improve balance and regain strength. 

If you are one of the 32.5 million suffering from OA, do not give up, get up! You have the opportunity to make a difference in your diagnosis. 

While these strategies can be very helpful and protective for many, others may need further care to help with OA. Fortunately, there are many arthritis treatments and strategies your medical team can offer based on your individual needs. Medicine is never one size fits all and your program should always be tailored to you! Consult your doctor to help discuss an exercise program right for you and/or the many OA treatments that may help you feel your best.  

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