Over 40 million Americans know all too well the difficulties of arthritis, an inflammation of the joints that manifests in over 100 different forms and ranges from a mild morning stiffness to a chronic debilitating disease.
The overwhelming majority of people with arthritis, over 21 million, have osteoarthritis, a degenerative disease that destroys cartilage and can cause painful bone-on-bone wearing at any joint.
And while osteoarthritis mostly affects people over age 45, younger people can develop the disease, especially those who have suffered joint injuries.
According to Dr. John J. Nicholas, chairman of the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Temple University Medical School, the most typically affected joints are the knees, hips, neck, shoulder and fingers.
Common symptoms include:
Limited joint motion
Weakness in use of limb
As cartilage loss increases, minor stiffness and occasional pain increases and can become chronic, affecting mobility and can even threaten a person’s livelihood. When osteoarthritis in the hips and knees becomes extremely advanced, often the only treatment is surgery and a total joint replacement.
For the many who do not need surgery, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist can help relieve pain and even slow some of the degenerative process.
“Early intervention makes a world of difference,” reports Nicholas. “There are several effective medications as well as exercises that can dramatically improve the quality of life of a person with osteoarthritis.”
Exercise Can Help
The old adage “no pain, no gain” does not apply to people with arthritis. Pain during exercise is the body’s mechanism for telling you to stop. A better cliché might be “move it or lose it.” Exercise has been found to have substantial benefits depending on an individual’s arthritis and the chosen exercise.
Avoiding exercise reduces muscle strength, mobility and overall energy, and increases joint stiffness. Studies have shown that stronger muscles help support and protect joints. This may lessen the degenerative process and alleviate pain and inflammation.
The benefits of exercise and cardiovascular health also impact the body as a whole and strengthen the immune system. Exercise balanced with rest help people feel better psychologically, which can greatly impact pain management and quality of life.
Recommended exercises will vary by individual case depending on the severity of their symptoms and location. A PM&R physician can advise you on the exercise best suited for your arthritis. Walking, swimming, and water-based exercise programs are low impact and generally well tolerated.
“Obviously we don’t recommend high impact, heavy weight-bearing activities like volleyball or basketball,” clarifies Nicholas. “For some people, exercise will exacerbate their arthritic condition, but if it doesn’t and you want to exercise there are definite benefits.”
Program for Daily Living
Some people with arthritis can experience interruptions or even be unable to do simple daily living tasks like opening jars, performing certain household chores, or in some cases getting dressed or tying their shoes.
PM&R specialists have solutions for many of these frustrating experiences and can recommend special techniques for getting dressed, suggesting slip shoes or special chairs that are more forgiving.
Arthritis patients may experience difficulties at work and doing their job. PM&R physicians assess patients and their jobs and can make recommendations to help keep people productive and working with less discomfort. Arthritic patients are often advised to take breaks from long periods of sitting so that joints don’t become stiff and painful.
Surviving and Thriving
Whether at work or at home, living with arthritis does not mean living in constant pain. PM&R specialists can help design workable, daily living programs that help the individual with arthritis function as well as feel better. In many cases, medications and exercise programs can even help slow the degenerative process. Many PM&R physicians work closely with rheumatologists and orthopedists when treating arthritis patients. This team approach to care ensures that all of a patient’s needs are considered.
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