Don't Let Arthritis Ruin Your Life!
What does it mean to live with arthritis?
It’s fairly common these days for relatively young, healthy, and active “boomers” to visit their physician with complaints about chronic aches and pains. Unfortunately, we doctors sometimes have to tell you that your pain is being caused by “arthritis.” And we know that news can be troubling, as arthritis is often associated with being frail or immobile, with debilitating or crippling pain and loss of function.
The “bad” news is that arthritis can affect adults of most any age, including those who have been very athletic or active (and whose joints may have taken a great deal of stress for years!). The good news is, there are positive, proactive steps that you can take to maintain your good health and minimize the affect of arthritis on your daily life.
Here’s an example: a 48-year-old gentleman came to visit me in my office. He’d noticed increasing pain and a “creaking” sensation in his right knee while running. Although he’d been active hiking, biking, golfing and skiing all of his life, he also had a history of diabetes and had recently gained about 15 pounds. He’d taken up running in an attempt to lose the extra weight. I ordered a knee x-ray, which revealed moderate to severe arthritic changes. As I explained the condition and treatment strategies to him, his biggest concern was how the condition would affect his lifestyle. Would he have to give up the outdoor activities that he loved?
What, exactly, is arthritis?
We actually lump more than 100 different medical conditions under the term “arthritis.” The thing they have in common is that they all affect the musculoskeletal system and the joints. And, believe it or not, more than 45 million adult Americans (that’s one in three people) currently live with this condition.
Arthritis can be experienced as pain, stiffness, or inflammation in the knees, back, shoulders, hands, hips, or other areas of the body. Many people from all walks of life get different types of arthritis for different reasons. Writers and artists can get arthritis involving the hands. Skiers and runners, like my patient described above, often get hip and knee arthritis. Sports injuries can commonly lead to premature degenerative arthritis. Osteoarthritis, the most common form, is most prevalent in the elderly and affects up to 80% of people over 60 years of age.
I’ve heard there’s no cure for arthritis.
While it is true that there is no true cure for healing arthritis permanently, something can be done to help almost everyone with the condition reduce pain, feel better, and improve function. Under your physician’s guidance, there are many effective ways to foster your own health and healing. You can feel good and continue to live a busy, active lifestyle with arthritis.
What can I do to improve my condition?
Stay active! Move, move, move your body, in whatever gentle, supportive ways are right for your condition. Expending energy begets more energy, and lack of physical activity begets the inability to move. The old adage, “use it or lose it” is really true. Although it may feel like you’re in too much pain to exercise, sometimes the paradox is that’s exactly what you have to do to heal.
It is important to consult with your physician, who may refer you to a physical therapist, to determine what kinds of exercise will be helpful for your condition and which could be harmful. You need to be certain that you’re not repeating a movement that might rapidly worsen the condition, especially if it was caused by running or other repetitive athletic movements. A physical therapist can help you learn the right targeted exercises and movements for your body—movements that will give you stabilization and balance from your core and support your particular areas of weakness.
Some types of exercise that might be recommended include:
- Swimming or water aerobics
- Walking or slow jogging, with a brace if appropriate
- Yoga or Pilates
- Tai Chi
- Gentle weight lifting
Not only does exercise provide physical benefits, it can also elevate your mood and relieve stress. Exercising with others can be an opportunity for each of you all to inspire and motivate one another. And, of course, exercise can also help you lose weight if that’s an issue for you. Every excess pound puts excess pressure on the musculoskeletal system and joints. Many people find that losing weight results directly in reduction of pain.
Use supplements, medications, and other soothing treatments. In addition to exercise, there are many other things you can try to treat your pain and symptoms.
- Tylenol Arthritis is good for pain management.
- Low Dose NSAIDs such as ibuprofen or naprosyn can help the pain, but must be used with caution as they can elevate the blood pressure, cause ulcers, and kidney problems.
- Glucosamine, a supplement that supports the cartilage and bones, is helpful to many patients. Try a dosage of 1,500mg once a day, and be patient. It can take almost six weeks to feel the impact.
- 500mg of calcium 3 times each day, with food, will support bones and joints.
- Try applying heat for about 15-20 minutes 3 times each day to relieve joint aches, or alternating heat with cold.
- Steam baths and hot tubs can be excellent therapy.
- Warm weather tends to be helpful while cold and humidity can exacerbate symptoms.
- A brace for the affected joint can help a lot to absorb shock and help with pain.
- Topical ointments, such as Capsacin and Icy Hot (available without a prescription) often feel good.
- Acupuncture can be an extremely effective pain management technique.
- In certain situations, x-rays and/or other diagnostic tests may be required to rule out other causes or conditions.
- If the above treatments have not improved the condition, you may be treated with targeted cortisone injections. It takes about 5 days to see an improvement from the injection, which will last about 3 months.
- There are also a variety of narcotic pain relievers that may be prescribed to support your symptoms if you do not respond to other treatments. This is typically used as last resort for medications.
- Some patients may be referred to a rheumatologist, a pain specialist, or a surgeon; certain people will be good candidates for joint replacement surgery.
Respect the Pain. It’s probably not going to go away on its own; you will have to stop the behavior that’s causing it and be proactive in your healing. That could mean no golf for few weeks until you’re feeling better.
Look for and Treat Depression.Depression often accompanies the chronic pain of arthritis. It can be exhausting and discouraging to wake up feeling bad every morning, and this can take its toll on the spirit. Be sure to tell your doctor if you’re feeling depressed about your situation. Oftentimes, addressing depression will also lift the physical pain.
Stay in Connection. You need interaction with and encouragement from other people, so don’t isolate yourself! Staying at home alone, especially if you’re used to being social and active, will only make you feel worse, not better. Spending time with others in similar circumstances can help you stay positive and see the bright side.
Certain symptoms could indicate a systemic or serious condition. If you experience any of the following you should see a doctor immediately:
- Radiating pain, tingling or zinging, weakness or numbness (which could indicate nerve compression)
- Fevers or night sweats
- Unexplained/unintentional weight loss
- Swelling or morning stiffness
- Pain that does not improve with conservative treatment or rest
- More than one joint being affected
- Family history of arthritis
So, what happened to my patient?Over the course of three months, by watching his diet carefully and doing gentle exercise like swimming and yoga, he reached his goal of losing 15 pounds without the high impact stress of running on his knees. He is very happy now, wearing a knee brace and taking glucosamine with his pain under control. He’s hopeful that his arthritis will stabilize as he continues along this health-conscious path, and his diabetes has improved, as well!
Don’t give up hope or allow a diagnosis of arthritis to ruin your life. Talk to your doctor about the best way for you to manage your pain, improve function, and live a healthy, vital life--even with arthritis.