Getting older can be a real pain in the knees, hands, hips and, well, just about any joint when you have osteoarthritis. Also known as degenerative joint disease, osteoarthritis causes the breakdown of cartilage — joint tissue that cushions the ends of each bone. Affecting more than 70 percent of adults over the age of 55 in the U.S., osteoarthritis may seem like an inevitable part of aging, but it doesn’t have to be.
Osteoarthritis is in part an inflammatory condition that often occurs with obesity or a family history of the disease. Taking a comprehensive lifestyle approach that includes maintaining a healthy weight, eating a nutritious diet, exercising regularly and taking your medication as instructed by your physician is key to managing your arthritis pain.
Doctors at the Cleveland Clinic recommend the following products and programs as part of your arthritis action plan. Always check with your doctor before beginning any new treatment.
Make a Joint Effort
You’ve likely heard of glucosamine and chondroitin supplements. Natural substances found in the body, glucosamine and chondroitin are molecules that are important components of cartilage. We don’t know exactly why these supplements are beneficial. There is some evidence to suggest that in addition to providing building blocks for cartilage, they might also dampen ongoing breakdown of cartilage and inhibit inflammation in the joints, which are active in arthritis.
Although glucosamine sulfate and chondroitin sulfate supplements don’t work for everyone, research shows that they may provide pain relief to people with mild to moderate arthritis. Thomas Morledge, MD, of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, recommends 1,500 mg of glucosamine and 1,200 mg of chondroitin for anyone with osteoarthritis. According to Dr. Morledge, they are a safe alternative to NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) like ibuprofen, which can irritate the stomach and cause bleeding. If you don’t see your symptoms improve within three months, discontinue use.
A Painless Way to Eat Healthfully
GO! Foods for You is an eight-week online healthy eating program designed by experts at the Cleveland Clinic. Why would an eating program help you with your arthritis? Eating the right foods — and avoiding the wrong ones — can help minimize arthritis damage. A well-balanced diet can reduce inflammation and promote healthy bones, joints and cartilage, and that means less pain! And for people who are overweight, even modest amounts of weight loss, like five to 10 pounds, can alleviate pain and slow the progression of arthritis.
Obesity puts people at high risk for osteoarthritis and is associated with rapid cartilage loss. According to a study in the journal Arthritis & Rheumatism, an 18-month diet and exercise program improved physical function in people with osteoarthritis by 24 percent.
Go! Foods for You shows you how to adopt a lifelong Mediterranean-style diet, filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and good fats, like olive oil and fatty fish. Learning how to reduce your intake of saturated fats, found in red meat, dairy products and packaged baked goods, is another important component of the program. Preparing and eating flavorful, nutrient-rich food will not only help you prevent and manage osteoarthritis, but it will reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes and obesity, as well.
Try Tai Chi
The pain of osteoarthritis can stop you in your tracks. “People with arthritis stop moving, and as they stop moving, they lose range of motion in their joints as well,” explains Dr. Morledge. Exercise is extremely important for people with osteoarthritis, but it can be challenging to find a fitness program that won’t cause pain. That’s why doctors recommend tai chi. Similar to yoga, tai chi is an Eastern martial art that involves slow, graceful movements. Instead of holding a pose, you are constantly moving from one posture to the next. “It’s a mindful, gentle way of increasing joint mobility and balance,” says Dr. Morledge.
According to a recent study at Tufts University School of Medicine, people with knee osteoarthritis who practiced tai chi showed better physical function and less pain. Another perk: Tai chi can help reduce depression and stress. How does this help your arthritis? “People who are emotionally stressed feel the most pain,” says Dr. Morledge. “There’s more of an awareness and focus on any painful condition when you are under stress.”
Flex Your Muscles
You might think that exercising when you’re overweight would increase your risk of osteoarthritis. After all, it puts extra stress on already taxed joints. But research shows that low-impact exercise is one of the best things you can do for arthritis. Building strong quadriceps, for instance, can help protect the knees from cartilage loss.
“When weakness develops in the muscles, that puts even more strain on the joints,” says Dr. Morledge. Strengthening your muscles, on the other hand, will help support them. Although there is no one-size-fits-all program for people with arthritis, the Gaiam Strong Knees DVD was created by a physical therapist and offers exercise modifications for people with injuries. Always exercise with caution. “You don’t want to do anything that’s going to result in more pain,” says Dr. Morledge. If your insurance allows it, visit a physical therapist, who can help determine the best exercises for you.
—by Jill Provost