Arthritis: Not a Life Sentence

It is commonly assumed that as we age we will develop arthritis in our joints. There are many types of arthritis, but the most common type we tend to hear about is osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is a persistent joint pain problem that affects the cartilage, bone, ligaments and muscles surrounding a joint. We commonly hear of osteoarthritis affecting the knees, hips or back, but this chronic inflammatory condition can affect any joint in the body. Individuals can start experiencing arthritic symptoms around 55-years of age. However, this can vary depending on previous injuries to a joint or the amount of kilometers you have put on your body. Those suffering with osteoarthritis will present with persistent joint pain lasting longer than 3-months and morning stiffness which tends to become more manageable about 30-minutes after waking up. If you have been diagnosed with osteoarthritis, I am hoping you are able to learn more about the potential causes, common symptoms and possible management strategies.

The typical person who experiences pain due to osteoarthritis may not want to participate in any activity as it can cause more discomfort to the injured joint. Although, being inactive will cause the muscles surrounding the joint to slowly weaken and cause the joint to be unstable. Inactivity also leads to weight gain which can increase stress on the already affected joint. Lack of physical activity can also negatively affects one’s sleep which subsequently affects mood and exacerbates pain levels. With the constant increase in pain levels, disturbed sleep and negative mood, an individual with osteoarthritis may be entering a cycle of pain and discomfort. On the bright side, there are easy strategies to break the pain cycle and manage osteoarthritic pain.

One of the primary treatment options to improve function, reduce pain and to end the cycle is exercise. Exercise is a relatively easy and safe treatment strategy which has been shown to help avoid or delay the need for medication or surgery. When beginning a new exercise regime, there may be a temporary increase in pain and stiffness, but this normal side-effect decreases with time and experience. Another benefit to increased exercise is weight loss. Research has shown that losing 5-10% of body weight can reduce joint pain and improve overall function. It is worth noting that improvements with pain do vary from person to person. It typically takes about 6-months to see the maximal benefit from exercise therapy. That being said, you should find an activity or exercise program to keep you engaged and motivated. Although not a “quick” fix, exercise is a sustainable and lifelong solution to managing osteoarthritis and overall health.

There are many barriers to exercise and physical activity including feelings of laziness, increased pain levels, lack of time, fear of failing, poor weather and negative thoughts. As I mentioned above, it is crucial to find an activity or exercise program which resonates with you. It can be tempting to overload yourself with an enjoyable activity or, contrarily, only perform exercise on pain-free days. It is important to stay consistent and pace yourself. It could be beneficial to pace your activity by breaking it into smaller portions throughout the day with rest in between. This will help you stay active, avoid pain flares, and gradually build up exercise tolerance over time.

Living with pain can be the most difficult part of having osteoarthritis. Pain is a complex phenomenon, affecting both the brain and the body. Although complex, one should take a “whole systems” approach when learning to deal with their pain experiences. This approach does not only incorporate exercise, but also practices mindfulness, proper nutritional habits, and good sleep hygiene. If you believe that you are suffering from osteoarthritis, have been previously diagnosed, or are looking for exercise advise, it is always helpful to seek professional guidance. Your chiropractor, physiotherapist or medical doctor are ideal healthcare providers to appropriately assess and treat this condition. Your healthcare professional should collaborate with you on ways to manage your osteoarthritis and, as emphasized above, explain the importance of exercise to maintain function of your affected joints and overall health.