FOR ARTHRITIS, EXERCISE IS THE SOLUTION
- From Arthritis Research UK: "If arthritis is causing pain, you may not want to move. But this can increase stiffness and in the long term your muscles will weaken, making movement even more difficult."
- According to the New York Times: "Exercise can help ease joint pain and stiffness for arthritis sufferers. But despite urgings from health officials and plenty of science documenting its benefits, many men and women with osteoarthritis do not engage in any meaningful physical activity in a typical week."
Even though exercise is recommended widely, I know why arthritis sufferers are not enthusiastic about it. I have arthritis too, just like 75% of those of 65. Arthritis hurts. When you hurt, the last thing you usually want to do is move. The idea of exercising seems beyond the pale. BUT... Mind over matter because exercise is our salvation. Over the past 40 years I have developed and adapted ideas that make moving much easier and end up really helping reduce symptoms. Those ideas are some of the fundamentals of the Building Better Balance technique.
Does arthritis affect your balance? You bet it can! The pain of motion that arthritis causes makes us much less likely to stay active. Balance skills deteriorate as a consequence. Arthritis of the knees, hips or spine makes the joints of the legs stiff and less able to maneuver in challenging situations. For example, we are less able to step out of the way when bumped. Lower body joint arthritis also makes it harder to pick up your feet while walking, resulting in shuffling. This in turn increases fall risk significantly.
On the other hand, with regular balance practice you can have results like this: One student with severe bone on bone arthritis of the knee had such extreme pain in the morning that it would take her 40 seconds to straighten it. After using a simple knee warmup exercise before getting out of bed she found she was pain free!
Here are some effective but easy and often pain free ways that help.
- Gentle joint rotation: Rotation (circling) of a joint is the safest and most thorough way to use any joint, but it is especially recommended for joints with arthritis. The motion is minimal (so there is less bone on bone abrasion), yet the benefit significant. Gentle circling keeps the joint from fixing and increases circulation through the joint which in turn reduces inflammation and pain. The key is to relax the joint. The smaller the circle the better. Often gentle circling does not hurt at all.
- Stretch the muscles that pain has tightened: Pain tenses muscles and the tightening in turn increases pain. Stretch the muscles that are tense and pain is reduced.
- Exercise the adjacent joints: The joint in question has problems but the joints on either side do not, yet they tighten in response to the trauma. Gently exercising the adjacent joints makes everything better.
- Strengthen the joint's stabilizer muscles: Strengthening the muscles surrounding the joint takes stress off the joint itself, so the burden of motion shifts to the muscles instead of the fragile joint.
- Use passive instead of aggressive exercise to increase strength of muscles near the joint: Isometric exercise builds strength without motion and is therefore ideal for arthritic joints. Be certain to stretch the muscles tightened afterwards.
- Strengthen the core to reduce joint stress: If you increase core strength, the stress of weight is lifted off the joints themselves. This is particularly effective with knee, hip and spine arthritis.
Using the same ideas for arthritis of the knee:
- Gentle joint rotation: Circle the knee joint gently. (*See the note below.)
- Stretch the muscles that pain has tightened: Stretch the back of the knee with a hamstring stretch and then stretch the top of the knee by pulling your knee into your chest as you are sitting.
- Exercise the adjacent joints: Do gentle ankle and hip circles.
- Strengthen the joint's stabilizer muscles: Strengthen the muscles that surround the knee joint itself.
- Use passive instead of aggressive exercise to increase strength: Do not use large movements to bend and straighten your knee. So deep knee bends for example should not be attempted. Strengthen your knee using small or isometric exercise as shown in Arthritis & Other Chronic Conditions.
- Increase core strength to reduce joint stress: The stronger your abdominal, glutes and pelvic floor muscles, the less weight placed on your knees. With less weight on the knee joint there is less inflammation and pain. Improved glute strength in particular helps relieve knee pain when standing.
One student with advanced arthritis mistakenly stepped into a drop off living room and did not fall or injure herself! She attributes this success to taking my balance classes.
* The knee circle exercise described above is a particular favorite of one of my students. Without the exercise, she feels she would not be able to walk. She used to call it her life safer. It is described in the article Knees That Hurt (from Balance News) and is included as one of the exercises in each Building Better Balance DVD class.
Extra Tip: Loose weight, especially if osteoarthritis of the knees, hips or spine are involved. Every pound you loose translates into 4 pounds less pressure on your joints. Some people have reported that their symptoms disappeared after loosing 10-20 pounds.