As we age acute joint pain – most commonly caused by arthritis – becomes ever more likely. However, it isn’t necessary to see arthritis as a condition over which we have no control; there is an ever-growing list of potential treatments and lifestyle changes that can keep your joints healthy and pain free for as long as possible. In this article we’ll take a look at some of the more hopeful options that you may want to consider…
Consult Your Physician
People of all ages may suffer from mild joint pain on occasion – such as after taking part in excessive exercise that your body simply isn’t used to. Recurring discomfort, however, is a rather different beast that may indicate the onset of arthritis. This is especially so in cases where this pain is accompanied by other well-known symptoms such as joint stiffness (especially in the morning), visible swelling or inflammation, a reduced range of movement and difficulties in everyday activities.
While very few of us enjoy visiting the doctor, in reality this is often the most intelligent place to start. Your doctor will have a wide range of experience in diagnosing joint conditions and in helping patients cope. Just as importantly, your doctor will be able to offer personal and tailored advice to you.
Visiting your doctor early on is particularly important so don’t hold off for months on end. This is because of growing evidence that some activities may slow down the onset of arthritis, rather than just helping you to deal with the symptoms. As a result, the sooner you start taking the right steps, the longer you’ll be able to retain your current lifestyle.
Reduce Your Body Mass Index
Arthritic joint pain is so common that considerable resources have been put into searching for “risk factors”. In other words: what elements of our lifestyle can make us more or less likely to develop serious joint-related complications?
Some of these are relatively obvious and there is little that can be done about them. For example, researchers have implicated occupations involving repeated lifting as a risk factor, as are past joint injuries such as those experienced during sporting activities.
However one element over which we all have control is our weight. Repeated studies have demonstrated that individuals with a higher body mass index (BMI) are more likely to develop joint pain due to the added pressure placed on them.
Just as importantly, however, scientists have noted that losing weight not only reduces your chances of developing arthritis in the first place, but can even lessen the discomfort felt among those already suffering from joint issues.
Past research has revealed some startling findings on how beneficial this weight loss may be. For example, one study calculated that individuals who lost 5kg of body fat almost halved their odds of developing osteoarthritis. If that doesn’t inspire you to shed your excess weight then nothing will!
If you’re growing concerned about existing (or potential) joint pain as you age, therefore, now would be the perfect time to start reducing your calorie intake, with a view to a natural and gentle drop in body fat – and with it your BMI. Your doctor may be able to offer guidance on how best to achieve this, though simply eating less and moving more is a good place to start.
Change Your Exercise Routine
It has been estimated that little more than 20% of us are achieving the recommended volume of exercise each week. This, of course, can impact many different aspects of our health, of which joint health is just one.
Traditionally, many authorities have promoted total rest as a way to reduce arthritis-related joint discomfort. There seems to be some logic to this hypothesis; after all, reducing motion should surely limit further damage to the joints. Furthermore, many individuals suffering from joint pain find that exercise becomes less appealing, due to the potential for discomfort.
More recently, however, opinions have been changing. One reason for this is the appreciation that exercise can impact so many aspects of long-term health. For example, studies have demonstrated that long term inactivity can result in significant muscle loss; a process sometimes known as sarcopaenia. This age-related muscle wasting can subsequently increase the chance of falls and fractures; a topic of increasing importance with age.
There’s more. Osteoporosis is the name given to the loss of bone mineral density, which can weaken bones, further increasing the chances of fractures. While osteoporosis can occur at almost any age, like arthritis it is most commonly experienced with age. Here, exercise has been shown to positively impact the condition, with load-bearing exercises encouraging the body to retain more bone tissue.
Researchers have noted that arthritis sufferers (particularly in cases involving partial knee replacement) tend to have weaker muscles in general. Furthermore, growing evidence suggests that increasing muscle strength around the affected joints helps to offer structural support, taking pressure off the affected joint. Increasing quadriceps strength, for example, has been shown to reduce arthritis discomfort of the knee.
We have already discussed weight loss as a beneficial approach to arthritic joint pain, but of course implementing a regular exercise regime can also assist with this process. Indeed, in one study where arthritis sufferers either undertook a weight loss program, an exercise program, or a combination of the two, it was the last group that experienced the greatest impact on their quality of life.
Lastly, regular exercise has been demonstrated time and again to help fight inflammation; a process that is integral to the discomfort experienced by arthritis sufferers.
But what exercise should you be doing?
In recent years a whole range of different exercise programs have been tested by volunteers. Aerobic exercises – even very gentle ones – have been found time-and-again to bebeneficial. This includes modalities including aqua aerobics, tai chi, dancing and swimming. Of course regular activities like walking or gardening can be equally beneficial, while even stretching exercises can help to improve range of motion.
Some disagreement exists regarding high intensity exercise or those involving resistance training to increase muscle mass. The current evidence seems to suggest that in cases of mild joint degeneration a degree of resistance training is likely to be beneficial. In contrast, resistance training in more advanced cases can actually accelerate the action of arthritis.
As a final note, it is worth highlighting that it is possible to exercise too much. Consequently, before engaging in any kind of exercise it is advisable to seek the guidance of your doctor with regards to efficacy and safety.
Make Dietary Changes
The food that we eat can have a marked impact on the development of joint pain. This can occur both directly, as we will discuss in just a moment, and indirectly through the process of weight gain or loss.
A balanced, healthy diet is beneficial for people of all ages, but may prove particularly useful for those of us suffering from the unfortunate rigors of aging. Meals that are rich in lean meats, fruits and vegetables, seeds and nuts, are considered to be a very healthy option.
However, there are a few additional considerations that may be worthy in the case of joint health. Firstly, it can be beneficial to consider the building blocks of our skeletal system. Ensure you’re getting enough calcium, for example, by consuming healthy volumes of dairy products or through the use of a calcium supplement.
It is also important to appreciate that vitamin D is crucial for the body to be able to utilize the calcium in your diet. Getting outside in bright sunlight helps your skin to naturally produce vitamin D. Vitamin D is not easy to consume in suitable quantities via the diet, so in the darker winter months many individuals opt for a vitamin D supplement to top of their levels.
One final point of particular relevance to anyone seeking to reduce inflammation of the joints is the importance of omega 3 oil. It is believed that while omega 3 and omega 6 oils are both essential parts of the human diet, the typical Western diet contains too much omega 6 oil and not enough omega 3. Maintaining the correct balance is crucial for helping to control inflammation.
In one study a group of 250 patients suffering from joint pain were provided either with fish oil – a rich source of omega 3 – or a placebo. Ten weeks later these same individuals were asked to report back on any changes to their perception of pain. It was noted that 60% of participants reported improvements in their joint pain, and that 88% planned to continue taking the supplement.
In another experiment omega 3 oils were given to arthritis sufferers regularly using painkillers for their joint discomfort. Participants were encouraged to only take their pain medication if necessary, and to record their ongoing usage. Some 12 weeks later it was noted that the group taking additional omega 3 were able to reduce their use of more traditional painkillers.
While omega 3 oils are some of the most popular supplements available – often sold as “cod liver oil” or “fish oil” – it is also possible to achieve similar benefits simply from eating more oily fish. Fish such as mackerel and salmon can be excellent sources of omega 3 oil, and it is recommended that we all enjoy at least two portions of fish per week.
Many of us dislike the idea of taking pharmaceutical painkillers, and so will avoid their use as far as possible. While they may be necessary for more serious cases of arthritis there are a number of alternative remedies that have become popular over the years.
The best-known of these is called “glucosamine”. This substance is found within the joints, and is believed to represent an important structural element in the overall joint matrix. Sadly, the body’s ability to produce glucosamine can fall over time, so many individuals choose to “top up” their levels.
One study into the efficacy of glucosamine pooled the results of sixteen previous scientific experiments by varying groups. They collated the results to gain an overall view of the impact that glucosamine seems to have on joint pain. It was noted that in thirteen of these experiments “glucosamine was found to be superior” to a placebo drug.
Elsewhere, the impact of glucosamine has been compared to the more traditional treatment of ibuprofen. Participants suffering from joint pain were offered at random one treatment or the other, while weekly assessments were made of joint pain. The experts found that while ibuprofen outperformed glucosamine over the first two weeks, as the experiment wore on the glucosamine group continued to improve. By the eighth week the results “turned significantly in favor of glucosamine”.
One thing that makes glucosamine such an interesting option is how safe this substance is believed to be. Not only is glucosamine a naturally-occurring substance found in most joints anyway, but in studies it has shown to have far fewer potential side effects than better-known painkillers like ibuprofen. In one experiment that utilized both treatments, for example, 35% of those patients taking ibuprofen complained of unpleasant side effects, but in the glucosamine group only 6% had an adverse experience.
Unlike omega 3 oils, it can be difficult to consume glucosamine in your diet as it is often sourced from the tough outer shells of crustaceans. For this reason, if you opt to try adding glucosamine to your daily routine it will normally be necessary to buy it in supplement form. Note that glucosamine is commonly available in two different forms – glucosamine sulfate and glucosamine hydrochloride. It is the former option that is far more thoroughly tested in the scientific community, and therefore may represent the greatest impact on your condition.
While glucosamine is the best-known and arguably most rigorously investigated of the “herbal” treatments for joint pain, a number of other options including curcumin, capsaicin and devil’s claw have also showed some benefit, though this research is still in its infancy. All the same, should glucosamine not appeal for whatever reason then you may further want to investigate some of the these alternatives.
In many ways we are living in a golden age when it comes to longevity, and the treatment of age-related health conditions. We know more than ever before about how to keep your joints healthy, mobile and pain-free thanks to the wealth of scientific research which continues to this day. As you can see, with just a handful of strategies you may be able to hold back the onset of arthritis and mitigate the joint pain many of us suffer.
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