Arthritis is the consummate boogey-man. It has been suspect #1 for joint pain since it was first identified. However, it’s also often falsely accused. I’ll get into that more in a minute. First, what is arthritis and why do we get it in the first place?
Arthritis is not a single disease, but rather an informal name for bone and joint pain. There are over 100 types, collectively suffered by over 50,000,000 Americans, including over 300,000 children. Symptoms include pain, swelling, stiffness and loss of range of motion. The two most common types you often hear about are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is an auto-immune problem, where the immune system attacks one’s own joint cartilage. Osteoarthritis is typically referred to as a wear-and-tear condition, where the joint cartilage becomes worn down over time. For the purposes of this article, I’ll be focusing on osteoarthritis.
Osteoarthritis, despite its reputation, is not a wear-and-tear problem; at least according to the most recent research. The latest theory is what’s called the “unused-arc” theory. In truth, the unused-arc theory is based on a theory proposed in the 1950’s that was met primarily with skepticism and derision at the time, but has recently begun to gain traction as more research has been performed, and competing theories ruled-out. The theory goes as follows… Wear and tear is what actually keeps the cartilage healthy.
Proper use keeps joints lubricated and stimulates the repair and rebuilding process. Lack of use, on the other hand, allows the cartilage to become dryer, more brittle and more prone to damage over time. Specifically, this tends to happen in the parts of the joint surface related to ranges of motion that aren’t sufficiently being used. So, prevention is key. That means maintaining a healthy weight, staying hydrated, eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise using all your muscle groups and moving through full ranges of motion in multiple planes. Exercises involving bands, cables and the Reformer are excellent in that they allow one unlimited variety in angles of resistance and ranges of motion. Cardiorespiratory exercise is also key. In addition to its other benefits, it improves overall circulation. But what do you do if you already suffer from arthritis pain? There are several things that can help.
All the things I mentioned above that help prevent arthritis can also help with managing arthritis. As I said above, that includes maintaining a healthy body-weight, staying hydrated and getting regular exercise. Diet is key because your diet can either create a pro-inflammatory environment or an anti-inflammatory one, depending on your choices. Red meats, polyunsaturated fats, sugars, simple carbohydrates, artificial sweeteners and carbonated beverages are all conducive to inflammation. Dairy, glutens and foods from the nightshade family are also often pro-inflammatory. I’ve seen clients’ pain go away just from cutting out diet soda. Though exercise is key, often OA sufferers will find many types of exercise painful. There are options to help with this. First, and most importantly, is warming-up really well prior to exercise. The increase in body heat stimulates the secretion of synovial fluid (hyaluronic acid) into the joints. This is the joint’s lubricant, making movements smoother and more comfortable while creating a fluid barrier between the joint surfaces.
Aquatic exercise can be especially useful. It allows you to exercise in a lower gravity environment which means less compression in the joints, while still moving through a therapeutic range of motion and strengthening the muscles which can unburden the joints. In terms of strength training, when exercising the affected joints, you can employ what are called short-arc isometrics. An isometric exercise is one that resists a load in a static position. With short-arc isometrics, you do a series of static holds at various points in the range of motion of the joint. Using the biceps as an example, you would start at the beginning of the motion, holding the weight in that position for several seconds. Then, using your other arm, you’d assist the involved arm in moving the weight 5-10 degrees further into the arc of motion where you would again hold for several seconds. You’d do this until you completed the full range of motion. This avoids the painful motion of the exercise while still getting the strengthening benefits. If the increments are close enough together, your brain will bridge the gaps neurologically and it will be as if you performed a single, contiguous range of motion.
I mentioned above that arthritis is often “falsely accused” of being the culprit in joint pain. Often, medical professionals will stop looking for the cause of pain once arthritis is identified. The fact is, an arthritic joint does not have to hurt. They often don’t. I’ve had clients with knees that were bone-on-bone who could still comfortably handle multiple flights of stairs. Addressing scar-tissue/adhesion build-up around the joints and surrounding tissues, addressing compensation patterns involving related muscles and cleaning up alignment and movement imbalances will often ameliorate or eliminate joint pain; arthritis or no.