May is National Arthritis Awareness Month. The Arthritis Foundation sponsors this annual campaign to increase awareness about ways to improve quality of life while living with this chronic health condition.
While there are many forms of arthritis, by far the most common form is osteoarthritis. It occurs as the cartilage that cushions the joints breaks down. According to the Arthritis Foundation, 27 million people in the US have this form of arthritis. Symptoms vary depending on which joints are affected and the severity. The most common symptoms are morning stiffness and pain. The most commonly affected joins are lower back, hips, knees, feet, neck and fingers. Causes of osteoarthritis include being overweight, repetitive overuse or injury, and genetics.
Arthritis can occur at any age but the lion’s share of cases is in those over the age of 65. There really is no magic pill that can cure this condition. The treatment is really trial and error lifestyle changes. The pain and stiffness can cause limitations in activities which in turn can lead to discouragement and even depression. But, there is hope and you can live a full life while coping with arthritis.
The number one treatment for osteoarthritis is-you guessed it-exercise. The Arthritis Foundation’s theme for this year’s campaign is Moving is the Best Medicine. Moving the joints helps to reduce stiffness and strengthen the surrounding muscles. The recommendation is to get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity every week or 75 minutes of vigorous activity. In addition, strength training at least twice per week, daily stretching and balance activity like tai chi are important to incorporate. Start slowly and work up if you have not been active. Activities to try include water aerobics and yoga.
Personally, I am a big advocate of a holistic approach to managing any chronic health condition. There are so many remedies to try-it takes some time to experiment and find out what works. Below are some notes on options:
- Acupuncture- There has been some research to suggest that the pain of arthritis can be relieved through acupuncture. As a form of Chinese medicine, acupuncture has been around for literally thousands of years. It entails the insertion of very thin needles into an area of the body, known as a meridian, which correlates to the area of pain. This is believed to open up blocked “qi” or vital energy.
- Hot and cold treatments- There are many topical over the counter treatments to try. Remedies include heat packs, capsaicin creams, cool/warm lotions and paraffin wax treatments. These work by interrupting pain signals. Heat may help to loosen tense muscles and cold can reduce inflammation. The only way to know what works is to try different things until you find something that brings relief.
- Glucosamine and Chondroitin- These supplements, once widely used, have fallen out of favor recently because research has not shown benefit either for pain relief or the laying down of new cartridge. There are those who swear by them, and if they help, by all means take them-they have few side effects or interactions.
- Meditation and guided imagery- Your mind is a very powerful tool. Your body does not know the difference between something that is actually happening and an image that you conjure up in your mind. Methods that have been used successfully include picturing your pain and then making it smaller and more manageable, going to a peaceful place in your mind to bring about relaxation and picturing the joint as whole and healthy.
- Diet- What you eat really does impact how you feel. Some foods, like refined sugar and flour lead to inflammation and increase pain. Conversely, a diet rich in omega 3 fats (fish, flax seed, supplements), fruits and vegetables and legumes can reduce inflammation and pain. Weight loss is also important for the treatment of arthritis.
While all of these ideas can help to manage the pain of arthritis, there comes a point for many where surgery is the answer. The main criterion in making the decision for surgery is pain and level of functional impairment. If you need this option, waiting too long is not a good idea. Keep in close touch with your health care provider. Living well is the goal.
Be Well on Purpose!