An estimated 29 million Americans have osteoarthritis (OA), a painful condition that occurs when the cartilage cushioning joints breaks down, allowing the bones to rub together. The most common form of arthritis, OA typically affects people over age 45.
While medication can help relieve the pain, swelling and loss of movement associated with osteoarthritis, guarding your joints from the wear and tear that contributes to the medical condition is the best strategy.
Preventing osteoarthritis is a lifelong commitment, says Dr. Joel Silverfield, who specializes in the treatment of arthritis in Tampa, Fla. “That begins with understanding your risk of developing OA.
“Some people just have better cartilage than others,” Dr. Silverfield adds. If you inherit a tendency for cartilage that is defective or brittle or thin, it can wear out sooner. “That’s why some people are 80 and don’t have OA and others get it in their 30s,” he explains.
The joint at the base of the thumb is the most common site for osteoarthritis. That’s because over a lifetime, the thumb is a hard-working joint. While it also commonly occurs in the hips, knees, feet and hands, OA can develop in any joint in the body.
Here’s to joint health
“Keeping your weight in a normal range reduces stress on your knees and hips,” says Dr. Silverfield, who suffers from a type of spinal arthritis that motivates him to manage his weight. “Extra weight means extra wear and tear, and that leads to pain.”
Gerry Chrisman, 62, was in her 40s when she saw her doctor about knee pain. “He started talking about surgery, but I told him I didn’t do surgery, so his alternative was to lose 20 pounds,” she says. By watching her diet and exercising, Chrisman eventually lost 45 pounds. “Now I don’t have any pain in my knees,” says the Grain Valley, Mo. (pop. 5,160), resident.
Staying physically active is the No. 1 thing to keep arthritis pain at bay, so Chrisman teaches water aerobics classes for others with arthritis. “I saw my father-in-law become an invalid as a result of arthritis,” she says. “I decided that that wasn’t going to happen to me.”
Give your joints a break
Preparing your muscles for any activity with warm-up exercises is another prevention strategy, Dr. Silverfield says. These can include stretching your arms and legs and gently rotating joints to increase circulation.
Using safety and support equipment also can help. Even the most skilled rollerblader can take a spill that can damage joints. Tennis players and runners who wear well-constructed shoes are investing in the life-long function of their knees and hips. Always wearing a seatbelt in the car can protect joints from injury should an accident occur.
While being active is good for joints, it’s also true that too much of the same activity can wear them out, contributing to osteoarthritis, Dr. Silverfield says. Repetitive tasks, whether it’s operating the mouse on your computer, knitting or standing for long periods, wear on joints. So mix it up, if you can. Learn to mouse with either hand. Take breaks every 15 to 20 minutes. Press the palms of your hands together at chest level, then flip your hands over so the knuckles are facing and press again. Then shake your hands briskly.
If your job requires standing in one spot, add a rubberized mat and a small stool to prop one foot on. Then shift your position every few minutes and switch feet on the stool. Ease your back by stretching from side to side and extending your arms overhead.
“OA doesn’t have to control your life,” Dr. Silverfield says. “Protect your joints from injury, stay active and keep an eye on the scale. When you do, you reduce your risk of developing OA.”
For more information on osteoarthritis, call the Arthritis Foundation at (800) 568-4045 or log on to www.arthritis.org.