While minor aches and pains seem to surface the older we get, arthritis joint pain can raise the bar to a whole new level. It may not seem intuitive in the throws of joint stiffness to work out, but that’s exactly what you should do.
Dr. Paul Howard, a prominent Phoenix-based rheumatologist and arthritis specialist, says when it comes to age-related osteoarthritis, keeping the body and joints in motion is the most effective way to treat arthritis joint pain. His practice, Arthritis Health Comprehensive Care, emphasizes a model of integrated care, which includes onsite yoga classes to help patients gain strength, balance and flexibility.
“In our practice, exercise is very important. We ask all of our patients, ‘How much do you exercise every week.’ I recommend a minimum of 150 minutes a week doing moderate activity to help alleviate arthritis pain,” says Dr. Howard.
Strength, Balance & Flexibility
Exercise is critical not only for managing osteoarthritis pain, it also can slow the onset of the disease.
“Arthritis can develop because people aren’t in good shape and their bodies are imbalanced. A lack of symmetry in the body can lead to arthritis of the knee, hips, spine and neck, for example.”
Causes of osteoarthritis fall into three primary categories: poor body symmetry and mechanics, genetic, or trauma to cartilage from a prior injury. Dr. Howard’s advice: Stay in shape. Maintain good muscular tone and a body mass index (BMI) within normal ranges for your height.
Barbara Hannig, 61, a retired cardiac critical care nurse who lives near Dallas knows first-hand the pain of osteoarthritis. In the late 1980s, while playing volleyball, she broke her arm and now experiences arthritis pain in her right wrist. She has also fractured her leg three times.
“As I’m getting older, the arthritis is presenting more of a challenge – not just the pain, but also in mobility,” she says. What she has learned over the years is to find workarounds that make it possible to remain active. “I can’t do pushups with my palms flat, for example, so I do them on my fists.”
To complicate matters, Hannig also suffers from rheumatoid arthritis related to Crohn’s Disease and ulcerative colitis. The rheumatoid arthritis affects mainly her feet. “There are days that I just can’t stand up. But I do it anyway because, dang it, I’m not going to let anything stop me.”
And she means that. Hannig is an avid cyclist. “What keeps me going is the cycling, and I can sure pedal a bike. It’s my savior.”
Dr. Howard points out that cycling is an excellent exercise choice for arthritis sufferers and encourages patients to find a way to keep moving. “Cycling is a great way of getting around a damaged joint because it puts much less stress on the joint than running or hiking,” he says. “Water-based exercises are also very good. Even just walking in the water is fabulous.”
As Hannig has done, arthritis patients need to figure out what they can do, rather than allowing arthritis limit activities. “I don’t care what you do. Just do something to keep moving,” he says emphatically.
No Free Pass
“There are very few conditions that really give you a hall pass not to do anything,” Dr. Howard adds. “You can usually come up with something to do to keep you active. And remember, the average person should be doing 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise every week.”
Hannig has no problem with that advice. “I find that cycling and staying active – even when I’m hurting – helps with the pain.” She has also switched to an anti-inflammatory diet to help manage the disease.
Hannig is a fan of pushing herself because she knows it helps relieve the arthritis pain. “I took up weight lifting and doing a little CrossFit training. The first couple of weeks of fitness activities, you feel it. But what I’m noticing now is that I’m becoming more flexible,” she says.
Maintaining a positive outlook is also essential, she says. “It’s not that you can’t do it. The question is how do you do it? Don’t tell me no, because I will figure out a way. That’s how I’ve tackled everything.”
Warning Signs of Arthritis Joint Pain
Dr. Howard notes there are a couple of key early warning signs to be on the lookout for when it comes to osteoarthritis.
If you feel pain when the joint is in use, but no pain after exercise, it could be a sign. “If you have pain with the use of a particular joint, you definitely need to back off. Pain afterwards is more muscular and that’s not as worrisome,” he says.
For people with inflammatory arthritis, such as those with rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, the disease is due to inflammation in the body. The best warning sign for this type of arthritis is stiffness and swelling in the joints first thing in the morning.
For more information about arthritis symptoms, treatment and pain management, visit the Arthritis Foundation website or schedule an appointment with a physician or a rheumatology specialist.