12 ways to help stiff and aching joints
They rarely get a break, so it's no wonder our joints can hurt from time to time. Julia Molony rounds up some of the best ways to ensure you remain supple
As we get older our joints get sore and it sometimes takes us a lot longer to get moving, especially after long periods of inactivity. So what are the best ways to keep you going?
1 GET MOVING - It seems logical that when we feel stiff we should rest, but on the contrary, exercise can help you improve your health and fitness without hurting your joints, explains Brian Lynch from Arthritis Ireland. "When you're active, you're 'feeding' your joints. Cartilage depends on joint movement to absorb nutrients and remove waste." He adds that moderate exercise "boosts strength and energy to get through the day" as well as providing a host of other benefits for joint health. Some of the key ones are: "strengthening muscles, ligaments and cartilage around the joints, maintaining bone strength and quality, improving posture and balance, which will take weight off affected joints and reduce the risk of falling."
2 DIVE IN - There's a reason why immersion in water is regarded as an age-old palliative for aches and pains - it works.
"Hydrotherapy or 'water exercise' is a popular exercise for people with arthritis," says Brian Lynch. "The buoyancy of the water takes pressure off painful joints and you may find you can move more freely than you can on land. Warm water can also be soothing for sore muscles and stiff joints."
3 EAT RIGHT - It can be tempting to neck dietary supplements at the first sign of pain, but the evidence of their benefits for arthritis and pain is patchy and limited, writes British GP Dr Matt Piccaver in his book Everything Your GP Doesn't Have Time To Tell You About Arthritis. There is some evidence that "Vitamin C might help reduce cartilage loss, and that low vitamin D levels may increase the risk of developing knee osteoarthritis," he says. Though he counsels against taking these in pill form unless "you are truly deficient in these vitamins".
Much more beneficial is a healthy, nutrient rich and varied diet, he adds. "The much touted Mediterranean diet has been shown to have a variety of health benefits and it is also recommended for rheumatoid arthritis. This is a diet rich in oily fish, vegetables and fruit, peas, beans, nuts and seeds."
The omega 3 found in oily fish such as "sardines, mackerel, herring, fresh tuna, salmon and snapper . . . have been shown to help reduce inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis", he adds. Aside from the benefit of individual nutrients, a healthy diet helps you to maintain a healthy weight, crucial for joint health.
4 WATCH YOUR WEIGHT - "Losing 1kg of excess weight decreases stress on the knees by 4kg," explains Brian Lynch from Arthritis Ireland. "And experts unanimously agree that maintaining a healthy body weight is one of the most important things you can do for your joints. "Perhaps the biggest contributing factor in the development of osteoarthritis, especially in the major weight bearing joints such as the hips and knees, is being overweight or obese," according to Dr Piccaver.
5 RETHINK HIGH-IMPACT SPORT - "Knees, hips and shoulders particularly take a battering over a lifetime," says Dr Piccaver. High impact sports cause "slow, steady, repeated damage". This is bad news if your favourite way to unwind on a weekend is a boisterous game of five-a-side. "Footballers are just some of those who are at greater risk of developing osteoarthritis of the knee and hip," says Dr Chris Jenner consultant in pain medicine and founder of the London Pain Clinic, in his book Arthritis, A Practical Guide to Getting On With Your Life. Though he notes that a lot of this risk is related to injuries sustained while playing the sport rather than the activity itself. "Long distance runners," he says "have been shown to be at no increased risk of osteoarthritis despite the continual pounding that their limbs take."
6 STRETCH IT OUT - Starting the day with a few yoga stretches can help you stay limber all day long, says Nadia Nahrain, yoga teacher to the stars and co-author with Katia Nahrain Phillips of Self Care for The Real World. "I do a little stretch each day for five-10 minutes in the morning. All animals do this after a nights sleep," she says. "When you wake up, stay in bed and do a side twist bring one knee in towards you and cross if over to the opposite side. Stretch your arm out to side and take three breaths, then swap over. When you get out of bed, stand with both feet flat on the ground and stretch your arms over the head, take your right wrist with your left hand and lean over to your left. Take three breaths then come back to the centre and repeat on the other side.
Finally, fold forward over your legs, keeping knees bent. Once you are hanging down over the legs grab your elbows and swing gently from side to side. Release elbows and roll up slowly vertebrae by vertebrae. Come up to stand and gently swing your arms from side to side around your body, inhaling to the left exhaling to the right. Do this about eight-10 times."
7 SEE A PHYSIO - "Physical therapies are often an important part of a successful arthritis treatment programme," says Brian Lynch. "Physiotherapists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, podiatrists and other therapists offer a range of treatments that will help your joints function better.
"Physiotherapists can advise on exercise, posture and non-medicine-based pain relief. They may also use techniques to keep joints and muscles flexible, such as joint mobilisation, hydrotherapy, electrotherapy and muscle strengthening exercises and stretches," he explains. While physical therapists focus on the manual treatment of the soft tissue - muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia and use hands-on techniques to diagnose, prevent or treat underlying conditions and problems. It is proven as being very safe, non-invasive and is of course, drug free."
8 CUT DOWN ON CAFFEINE - Very high coffee intake appears to increase the risk of rheumatoid arthritis," according to Dr Matt Piccaver. Specifically, one study demonstrated that people who drink four or more cups of coffee per day doubled their risk of having a blood marker for the disease. If you're enjoying that cup of coffee with a cigarette, the risk is increased further still - long-term smoking is also linked to the development of the condition.
9 REDUCE STRESS - Stress and anxiety are aggravating factors for joint pain, according to Dr Chris Jenner. The hormones released into our bloodstream when we are chronically stressed can lead to "flare ups in pain and inflammation" if they are circulating at high levels or long periods of time. On top of this, stress causes muscles to tense up, leading to "increased pain and worsening symptoms". In his experience, cognitive behavioural therapy can be very useful for tackling the emotional triggers and complications of arthritis.
10 DRINK ENOUGH WATER - "Taking in sufficient liquids is vital for overall health and well-being, regardless of whether you suffer from arthritis or not," says Dr Chris Jenner. "Because, amongst other things, water helps to lubricate the joints, drinking eight tumbler-sized glasses of water every day can help to reduce the damage to cartilage in the case of osteoarthritis for example, and some also believe that it can guard against the painful inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis."
11 TAKE THE RIGHT MEDICINE - Paracetamol can be useful as a first line of treatment to deal with pain, but a more effective treatment for aching and stiffness in and around joints comes in the form of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen. These are particularly good for tackling the specific type of "inflammatory pain" behind arthritis, says Dr Matt Piccaver. They are available both as tablets and gels which are applied topically.
12 KEEP A HEALTH JOURNAL - Keeping track of the triggers that seem to precede episodes of joint problems can be invaluable, advises Dr Chris Jenner. "Some sufferers find that certain food and drinks seems to cause flare-ups in inflammation, although whether this is a result of allergies to the particular items or whether these foodstuffs are genuinely pro-inflammatory in nature is not certain," he says.
"What is the case is that precisely which foods and drinks cause problems seems to vary from one individual to another." On the problem list are red meat, dairy, fried food, hydrogenated fats, sugar, alcohol (especially beer) and synthetic sweeteners. A trial of elimination can be useful, but sufferers don't necessarily have to permanently cut these things. "Some patients find they are able to reintroduce these items into their diets quite successfully, albeit at lower levels."
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