Health Column: Exercise & arthritis — it is safe?
Special to the Free Press
Many people who have a knee, hip, or shoulder that is afflicted with arthritis do not exercise because their joint hurts and they worry that exercising it will damage the joint further. By being inactive, they are in fact hurting their joints more. The affected joint will actually become stiffer, weaker, and more painful the less it is used. The surrounding bones can also become more brittle with disuse, leading to an increased risk of fracture. An arthritic knee or hip sometimes feels better in a bent position. If it is held that way too long without moving, the bend can become permanent and change the way a person walks, causing pain in other joints.
Orthopaedic surgeons used to tell patients to slow down when they were diagnosed with an arthritic joint. However, we now know it is important to keep an arthritic joint as mobile and strong as possible. This is where exercise is crucial for maintaining joint heath. Exercising not only helps keep joints moving through a full range of motion, it helps with overall health and mental well-being.
Maintaining a healthy weight takes extra burden off the joints and can prevent other issues such as heart disease and diabetes. Brain chemicals released during exercise have also been shown to elevate the mood and combat depression. Daily exercise has been shown to improve the quality of nighttime sleep patterns as well.
Activities such as biking, swimming, hiking, and walking are things that can be done with friends and family that will protect the joints’ motion and prevent further deterioration. Many patients find that once they start moving their arthritis will actually feel better. They may need to use ice or heat before or after exercise to manage aches and pains. Sometimes an anti-inflammatory may also aid in overcoming the initial pain of getting back into an exercise routine. Strength training is important, too, as it helps build the muscles and bones around the joints and improves fitness and metabolism. If possible, it is good to vary the exercises done to combat boredom and fatigue with the activity.
There may be times that the exercise routine has to be modified because of an arthritis flare. Even when the joint hurts, at a minimum, a stretching routine should be undertaken. It is best to continue but just modify the number of repetitions done, or weight lifted, rather than forgo the workout altogether.
How should one begin exercising with arthritis? If heart disease is an issue you should always talk to your cardiologist or primary care physician to find out what intensity of exercise is safe. Once you know any potential limitations, it is good to keep several principles of exercise for arthritis in mind. First, you should learn a good mobility routine. This is something that an orthopaedist or physical therapist can assist you in developing. Secondly, get into a good strength routine as well. The physical therapist or orthopaedist can give you some basic resistance exercises to do, but once you have the hang of it, going to an actual gym can provide you with heavier weights to work with. Finally, find a recreational activity that you can do with your family and friends that you really enjoy and also keeps your heart pumping and your joints moving. You will find they keep you motivated on the days your joints ache and you don’t want to get up and go.
Most importantly, remember that you are not doing further damage, but are actually helping to keep your joints healthy as possible.
As a board certified orthopaedist practicing at Rocky Mountain Orthopaedic Associates, Dr. Thea A. Wojtkowski specializes in general orthopaedic surgery with clinical interest in women’s musculoskeletal health, injuries and disorders of the knee, trauma and sports medicine. She is devoted to the diagnosis, treatment, rehabilitation and prevention of injuries and diseases of the musculoskeletal. In a single day, she may treat patients with a variety of conditions, including fractures, torn ligaments, arthritis, osteoporosis, bone tumors, ruptured disks and pulled muscles.
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