Keys to Living Well with Osteoarthritis

Friday, May 24, 2013

There are key things that you and your doctor can do to help ease your arthritis pain, learn to overcome the challenges of living with arthritis, as well as possibly slow disease progression.  “You can’t choose whether you’ll get arthritis, but you can take steps to minimize its impact on your life.”

Generally, arthritis is defined as a disease of the joints, often resulting in joint pain, tenderness, swelling, and stiffness. Over time, loss of joint function can occur. There are over 100 types of arthritis, with different signs and symptoms, and levels of severity. Millions of Americans suffer from some form of arthritis.  Osteoarthritis, also called degenerative or “wear-and-tear” arthritis is a common form of arthritis that usually first appears when people are in their 40’s and 50’s. It may start out as pain in a single joint – perhaps one finger – or from multiple joints throughout the body. Trauma to a joint can also cause osteoarthritis. The joint begins to “wear out” due to use or overuse which causes the cartilage that cushions the bone ends in the joints to deteriorate. This results in roughening of the normally smooth surfaces of the bone ends, and cartilage may eventually wear away until bone rubs against bone.

The symptoms of osteoarthritis are pain, stiffness and sometimes swelling in a joint. These symptoms build up slowly in between periods of calm alternating with what are referred to as “flare-ups.”  Flare-ups are often a result of changes in the weather or activity involving the affected joint, especially overuse. Osteoarthritis commonly occurs in the hands – specifically the joints of the fingers, and at the base of the thumb; and the joint at the base of the big toe, as well as the knees, hips, and spine. The exact cause of osteoarthritis is not known, but as mentioned above, it involves cartilage damage around the joint. Risk factors which predispose osteoarthritis include an abnormality of joint structure or previous joint injury resulting in cartilage damage, getting older, lack of exercise, being overweight, and certain genetic conditions.

10 Important Keys to Living Well With Osteoarthritis:

1. Find a Doctor

The first step is to find a good doctor. Doctors play an essential role in the treatment and management of arthritis. Choosing a doctor is one of the most important decisions you will make when it comes to taking control of your condition. Dr. Goodman and the healthcare providers and staff at ARC use a Team Approach based on the latest research, diagnostic tools, and years of experience which will provide you, the patient, with a proper diagnosis and treatment options. Dr. Goodman is board-certified in Rheumatology and Internal Medicine, and has over 25 years of experience. “Blending the latest scientific information with personalized patient care is the way I approach the treatment of patients who have arthritic disease.” This is the best approach for managing arthritis, and the key to living well with your condition. The health care providers at ARC also know that one of the most important aspects of helping our patients cope with arthritis is encouraging patients to take a proactive approach, and learn as much as they can about their condition. Keeping patients informed is important to us, and one of the reasons we feature articles like this on our website.

2. A Positive “Can-Do” Attitude

Focusing on what you can do, rather than dwelling on your limitations makes a big difference. Research has shown that people with a positive proactive attitude are likely to experience less pain and limitation from their arthritis than those who are more negative. Also, when you feel that you are in charge, you are more likely to adopt health lifestyle choices which have a positive effect on arthritis and your general well being. Along with a positive attitude, the following lifestyle choices can have a profound and positive effect on your osteoarthritis and quality of life, and are among the keys to living well with arthritis:

3. Reducing Stress 

Stress is a part of modern-day life, but there are steps we can take to reduce stress and deal with it. Everyone experiences stress. Whether it is positive or negative, stress can cause muscle tension, pain and fatigue. Learning to manage and reduce stress, and eliminate as much as you can, is vital. Keeping a journal of events that cause you to feel stressed can help you change or avoid those situations – or change your reaction to them.  Remember this quote to help you deal with the stresses of life:  “Life is 10% what happens to us, and 90% how we react to it.” Chuck Swindoll.  Meditating, getting plenty of rest, regular exercise, and eating a well balanced diet all help to deal with stress; as well as reduce the pain of arthritis!

4. Losing Excess Weight

Excessive weight increases the risk of developing cartilage damage, and puts extra stress on the joints.
Losing five or ten pounds can reduce the pressure on your joints. In fact, did you know that for every pound of body weight, joints bear a 500 percent greater amount of weight? So, a 100-pound person is putting a full 500 pounds of pressure on their joints! Someone who is overweight by just 10 pounds will place an extra 50 pounds of pressure on those joints.

Losing just a few pounds can make a big difference in the pressure on your joints. Keep in mind that five pounds of pressure on the joints is relieved for every pound lost!

Be sure to check with your primary care physician before beginning a weight-loss program.

5. Exercise

There are many advantages to regular exercise.  Regular exercise not only increases the feeling of well being, and helps maintain a healthy weight; it can also help strengthen the muscles that support your joints – thus taking the strain off of your joints.  Also, strengthening your core or abdominal muscles, has been shown to take strain off the knee, which helps prevent falls, and further injury. That said, it is important to take precautions to protect your joints and avoid further damage. That means listening to your body, and not forcing a motion if you feel pain. Don’t overdo. Your doctor or physical therapist can help make suggestions to develop an exercise program appropriate for you. Generally, low impact activities like walking, swimming, cycling, are recommended. Water-based activities like water aerobics are ideal, especially in warm water. You may need to skip any weight-bearing activities – check with your doctor first. If you get the go –ahead, remember Moderate strengthening exercises place less stress on your joints than heavy weight lifting. Avoid high impact activities such as running, jumping and heavy weight lifting. Proper exercise helps you maintain your mobility. Check with your physician before beginning any exercise program. Then, keep these rules in mind: Start slowly and increase gradually. Warm the affected joint with a heat source before exercise and apply ice after exercise. Rotate between flexibility, aerobic and strengthening exercises during the week. Wear appropriate footwear with good support, and use proper equipment.

6. Relax

Taking time to relax and meditate can give both your body and mind a much needed rest. Explore different ways to relax, and make time to include them in your life. Maintain a journal and fill it with your favorite quotes and verses. Focus on the positive in your life, and write down five things you are thankful for every day. Incorporate yoga or tai chi into your routine. Utilize relaxation techniques such as meditation and guided imagery to relax your mind. Massage is helpful, as well as slow and deep breathing, or tightening and releasing different muscles throughout your body.  Aromatherapy helps many people relax.  Ensure balance in your life, by making time to enjoy your hobbies. Take time to enjoy a sunrise, listen to the birds, or your favorite music. Learning to relax and meditate will give both your body and mind a much needed rest, and help you feel refreshed and renewed.

7. Sleep & Rest

It is very important to practice good sleep hygiene, and get a good night’s sleep.  If you have trouble getting to sleep, talk to your doctor. Also, it is important to know when to rest: throughout your day, learn to rest before you become too tired. Every once in awhile, put your feet up, and relax for a few minutes. A good guide is to plan 10 minutes of rest for every hour of exertion.  Flare-ups or fatigued joints may be a signal to back off or change activities.  Painful, swollen or inflamed joints may sometimes require total rest temporarily, or a splint that will immobilize them until the inflammation is reduced.

8. Understanding Your Pain

Learn to distinguish between pain associated with general joint discomfort, and that caused by joint overuse. A damaged joint may cause pain even when it’s not inflamed and you’re not overdoing an activity. Medication may not totally relieve pain from joint damage. However, when pain with a particular activity is excessive, comes on quickly, or lasts for more than an hour or two afterward, chances are you’re overdoing it or doing an inappropriate activity.

9. Medication

When pain from your arthritis is preventing you from doing what you need or want to do, it’s time to see your doctor.  A major part of the treatment program for arthritis is medication. There are many effective drugs and medications which are utilized for treating arthritis and related conditions. Talk to your rheumatologist about medication and treatment options that are right for you.

Your health care provider can also talk to you about a number of options to alleviate pain. Orthotics, joint stabilizers, ice therapy when indicated, topical analgesics, and over-the-counter or prescription medications are often used to help relief pain and stiffness.  Ask your rheumatologist about the many new and effective treatment options for arthritis and related conditions.

10.  Assistive Devices

There are simple changes you can make at home to stay as independent as possible and minimize your risk of injury. Look around your home and get rid of throw rugs, put handles in the bathroom and a shower chair if necessary. Eliminate clutter, and simplify your decor by getting rid of things like small occasional chairs and tables that block your path. If possible, try to avoid reaching above your head. Reorganize closets and high cabinets, and put what you use most often within easy reach. Use an ergonomic chair at your desk, and get up and stretch every 30 to 60 minutes.

Become familiar with and utilize assistive devices. Many products are available, such as jar openers, specially designed cutlery, devices to extend your reach, and aids to help you dress help to make common daily tasks less harmful to your joints. It is very common to get a flare of arthritis pain in your wrist when you try to open a can or jar. Some people avoid these devices because they view them as a form of weakness. Instead, think of it as working smarter, not harder.  You probably wouldn’t question using a washing machine or microwave, which are both assistive devices – they make our lives easier. So, view assistive devices for arthritis in the same way: they are just one more tool in you toolbox which you can use to help preserve and protect the function of your joints for as long as possible.

If you’re encountering difficulty managing independently at home, ask your physician for a physical/occupational therapy referral, or a home safety evaluation.

At The Arthritis & Rheumatology Clinic, our goal is to partner with our patients to ensure they are getting the very best of care to help them live their most fulfilled lives possible. 

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