Reducing Arthritis Discomfort

Health, Home & Family
on September 2, 2007

Arthritis can be a pain—literally. But for sufferers who want to stay active and involved, it generally can be managed with simple, common-sense strategies designed to ease the discomfort of achy joints.

It’s probably no surprise that exercise and weight control are on the front lines of defense against debilitating arthritis.

“Staying active is one of the most important things anyone with arthritis can do,” says Kathryn Medlin, a physical therapist in Greensboro, N.C. The problem is that when one joint such as the wrist or knee becomes especially painful, the tendency is to stop exercising altogether. Medlin offers an alternative: “Rest that part but try to keep the rest of your body going.”

Physical therapists suggest developing and maintaining a daily exercise routine by starting slowly, then gradually increasing both the time and intensity. Water exercise, golf and cycling work well, but many people prefer “lifestyle exercise” such as gardening or walking. Incorporate a variety into your daily routine and include exercises that strengthen muscles around body joints.

Exercise also contributes to weight control, which is important since excess pounds can increase pain associated with arthritis. “Excess weight puts undue pressure on the knee and hip joints,” says Dr. Scott Zashin, a rheumatologist in Dallas, “so I encourage overweight patients to slim down. Aerobic exercise, which raises the heart rate, helps with weight control. It may also help the quality of patients’ sleep, and we know that people who sleep well usually have less pain.” Here are eight more strategies for managing arthritis discomfort:

  • Pay attention to posture. Stand so your weight is evenly distributed on both feet and your knees are relaxed, not locked. Roll shoulders back and tuck the stomach in. Sit up straight in a chair that fits your body, with feet touching the floor.
  • Take a break. To avoid stiffness when writing or reading for an extended period, release the grasp on your pencil, pen or book every 10 to 15 minutes. On the road, get out of the car, move around and stretch at least once an hour.
  • Don’t reach. Rearrange! Organize your kitchen or other high-use spaces so that commonly used items are within easy access, rather than having to strain to reach them. When purchasing or installing new appliances, consider whether they are at a comfortable height. Choose models with knobs or buttons large enough to use without straining your hands.
  • Hands on. If arthritis affects your fingers, don’t grab items by pinching them. Instead, make better use of the rest of your hand and take advantage of helping aides. For instance, use your palms to balance items such as a book or plate. A book holder can be handy for reading. Use scissors instead of your hands to tear open plastic packages.
  • Tame the telephone. A headset is a good investment, especially if you are a telephone chatterbox, since cradling a phone by tilting your head puts undue stress on neck vertebrae and shoulder joints. In addition, a cordless phone is convenient to keep your phone easily accessible.
  • Plan and organize. Before starting a task, identify and organize items you need in order to avoid excess movement later. For instance, place gardening tools in a wheelbarrow to keep handy while doing yard work. Place books and other office resources within easy reach of your desk or computer to minimize awkward turning.
  • Select shoes carefully. Trade in those high heels for low heels or flats. Shoes with heels 2 inches high or more cause the body to twist, placing extra stress on joints. Also examine your exercise shoes regularly. If the soles are worn on either the inside or outside, it can make you lean when walking or running. As a general rule, regularly worn exercise shoes should be replaced once a year.
  • Balance is basic. Rotate periods of rest and activity during the day and alternate chores to use different muscles. For instance, after wrestling with laundry in your washing machine or standing over an ironing board, sit a spell and pay bills. Pick a balance that works for you.