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Healthy Memphis: Get moving, lose weight to ease osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is a common joint problem, especially for people over 50 and for those who have had joint injuries. It occurs when the cartilage that protects joints wears away or is torn.

Exercise is one of the smartest and least expensive treatments for osteoarthritis and is far less costly than surgery. Exercise can keep your joints and muscles limber. Activity increases stamina. Pain is often reduced as joints become more flexible. Exercise can also cause your body to release chemicals like endorphins that make you feel happier.

Strength and flexibility help to prevent debilitating stiffness and falls. Strong knees and legs are important for maintaining the ability to rise from chairs or floors, use stairs, and lift safely without injuring the back. Among the biggest reasons for falls are lack of strength, poor balance and bad footwear.

Though exercise is critical for mobility, studies show that people with osteoarthritis are often “couch potatoes.”

The risk of osteoarthritis is often associated more with excess weight than factors such as sex or race. Excess pounds on a damaged joint almost always make the pain worse. Fat cells can also promote inflammation in the body.

The lifetime risk of knee osteoarthritis for an obese person is more than 60 percent. Obese people comprise about one-third of the population but have as many as two-thirds of the hip and knee replacements.

Anti-inflammatory drugs such as naproxen, Celebrex and NSAIDs, and acetaminophen (like Tylenol) can all make joint problems less painful. Anti-inflammatory drugs can cause ulcers. Too much Tylenol can cause liver damage.

Some people claim success with supplemental therapy such as oral omega-3 fish oil, glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate. More research is needed to learn how useful supplemental therapies really are.

What you should do

See your doctor to rule out other medical issues that cause joint problems. Other reasons might be gout, an injury, Lyme disease or other infection, anemia, fibromyalgia, or an immune system disorder like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis.

Find fun things to do to keep your joints active. Ideas include walking, biking, swimming, hula hoops, a sports class or gym, weight lifting, yoga, or tai chi. Find friends to share walks or visits to a gym or class. Low-impact dancing — belly dancing, jazzercise, cha cha, salsa, ballroom, to name a few — can give you a great mind-body workout.

Don’t let fatigue or depression keep you down. Think about the great results and increased flexibility from exercise. A little sunlight, exercise, healthy eating and portions, and routine sleep can energize you to feel more like moving.

Forget how you look when you are exercising. Instead, think about the improvement in your looks and mobility later.

Exercise early in the day to avoid being over-stimulated at bedtime. Build movement into your daily routine, like taking stairs instead of elevators, parking a distance from the door, and walking to lunch or to deliver a message.

Do both strength and aerobic exercises. These habits can also reduce pain if done properly. Visit with an exercise coach or therapist to customize exercises for an arthritis-friendly workout that fits your abilities and goals.

Develop the habit of lower-body exercises for knees and hip strength. They can also firm up your backside and legs.

Don’t slouch. Sit square in your chair and stand up straight. Good posture can even out the load on each joint. Give up high heels and heavy handbags that shift joint positions at the knee, hip and trunk, and can hurt the lower back.

Think of a sturdy chair as a good exercise partner. Chairs can provide some balance while you do squats and leg lifts. This will allow you to strengthen and stretch your knees and legs without putting too much stress on them.

Walk every day and keep it up. Never exercise so much that you can’t walk the next day.

Avoid overuse of joints. Warm up before exercises. Start slowly. Build up. Cool down afterward.

Consider using a cane to take pressure off a painful knee, hip or ankle. This might increase balance and stability while reducing excess pressure and wear and tear on the joint.

Apply a cold ice pack to a joint that is swollen or burning to reduce inflammation. Heat helps to relax muscles.

Choose a health plan that allows you to get needed physical therapy and prescriptions to maintain flexibility, control symptoms, and build strength. A slightly higher premium for needed benefits may be worth the investment.

Ask your doctor about nonsurgical treatment alternatives.

Get a second opinion before opting for surgery. There could be other effective ways to manage joint problems. Joint replacement might help if the joint is so damaged that pain constantly prevents sleep, and mobility and muscle are lost.

For more information

Visit arthritis.org, niams.nih.gov and cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/publications/AAG/arthritis.htm.

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