Understanding Arthritis

By Lynette Carrington

Arthritis is a condition that can, and does, affect millions of people as they age.
According to the Arthritis Foundation, arthritis is the leading cause of disability among adults in the U.S. The most common type of arthritis is osteoarthritis, which affects an estimated 31 million Americans. Another shocking statistic is that more than 78 million people are expected to have doctor-diagnosed arthritis by the year 2040.

Although arthritis can affect people of all ages, there are risk factors. Orthopedic surgeon at Adventist Health Lodi Memorial and professor of biomechanics at U.C. Davis, Stephen M. Howell, M.D. says, “The first risk factor is too many birthdays! People are living longer and joints wear out. It’s almost like cataracts. Age is a risk factor.” He estimates that 50 percent or more of people will develop arthritis as they age. Excess weight is also a risk factor for developing arthritis, particularly in the back, hips, knees, and ankles.

“Weight control and exercise within tolerance are two ways to treat arthritis, plus anti-inflammatory agents as needed,” says Dr. Howell. “When you get older, you slow down, but you try to stay active and fit as much as you can. Short and varied activities are good.” Taking on a variety of physical activities and not necessarily repeating the same strenuous exercises every day are a good way to relieve joints that might get aggravated with constant or heavy use. In more severe cases, injections can sometimes alleviate pain and discomfort. 

Athletes who have experienced injuries may have arthritis symptoms that present at an age earlier than the general population, but just because someone has been an athlete does not necessarily put them at an increased risk of development arthritis. “If you have a long distance runner and they’ve never had a serious knee injury, they could probably run their whole life,” explains Dr. Howell.

In the most severe cases, joint replacement might be necessary. “Two things are happening. People are living longer and there are more 70, 80, and 90-year olds around than there were before, so we are seeing more joint replacements,” Dr. Howell says. “But you do have some athletes who have had injuries. You might have someone who has one great knee, and one bad knee. That bad knee wears at an accelerated rate. One knee will act like a 50-year old knee and the other acts like an 80-year old knee.” When a knee replacement is done, Dr. Howell says he will try to restore a high level of function so the person can potentially return to their regular activities.

Dr. Howell explains, “A person has to individualize their exercises and avoid overusing a joint that is bothering them. For many people, water aerobics and swimming are the two best exercises.” Weight bearing exercises done within reason are also a good choice. Perhaps surprisingly, Dr. Howell says someone doesn’t necessarily have to work with their personal doctor to find an exercise routine that works for them. He says, “It’s common sense. It’s aging. It’s a natural consequence of aging and when arthritis creeps up and starts bothering you, you have to reset what your new norm is. You’re not the same at 65 as you were at 60.” New standards to work with the body’s individual condition should constantly be evaluated. As with any exercise, listening to how your body responds to your physical activities is important.

 Five Activities for those living with arthritis
Ongoing physical activity for those who have arthritis is important to maintain range of motion and fitness.

Swimming allows the body to be able to move more freely and without heavy or jarring impact. Water aerobics using small weights can also be effective in maintaining muscles mass.

Elliptical Machine
Elliptical machines typically allow a user to adjust the difficulty level to fit their needs. The non-impact movement also allows for good aerobic exercise.

Low or No Impact Strength Training
Strength training with weights or resistance bands can help increase strength and retain bone mass. To help relieve joint stress it is best to not do anything too strenuous or exercise the same muscle groups two days in a row.

Yoga or Tai Chi
Gentle styles of yoga or tai chi can help improve balance and coordination. These exercises can also help to improve overall posture and prevent falls.

Other Daily Activities
Regular daily activities such as taking the dog for a walk or mowing the lawn can help to keep a routine of regular movement. Gentle stretching and bending while watching television can also help.


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