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How To Manage Osteoarthritis Pain

June 21, 2014

Osteoarthritis affects roughly 27 million Americans, many of whom are senior citizens. The condition can be caused by a slew of factors including age, obesity, overuse, a previous joint injury and genetics. It’s defined as pain and stiffness associated with the breakdown of cartilage around joints, and can be the result of simple wear and tear or autoimmune disorders.

Treatment for osteoarthritis often includes medication for pain relief and a physical activity program. General physical activity will keep joints moving and help maintain a healthy weight to keep extra pressure off painful joints. Strength and balance training can build up the muscles that will protect and support joints while stretching regularly can decrease overall pain. There are even outlined self-management and physical activity programs offered online through organizations such as the Arthritis Foundation.

Seniors lifting weights Recommended activity levels
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention compiled information about the appropriate level of exercise older adults may engage in to manage osteoarthritis pain.

Aerobic activities, those that increase your heartbeat or make you sweat, can be a great way to ensure joint health. Try for two hours and 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity or one hour and 15 minutes of vigorous activity per week. Some aerobic activities are brisk walking, swimming, social dancing, yoga and tai chi. 

Muscle strengthening  is recommended at least twice a week, with bi-weekly balance exercises. Strength activities aimed at all of the muscle areas, legs, back, chest, arms, shoulders, hips and abdomen can help improve overall stability. Older adults can use weight machines, lift free weights or use resistance bands. Often you can find group exercises at a retirement community as well. Balance exercises can count for part of the aerobic or strengthening group, depending on what activity you do. Some options are walking backward and standing on one foot.

These numbers shouldn’t be taken as a hard and fast rule but rather a suggestion. The amount of activity that’s comfortable is dependent on age, pain levels and mobility. The most important factor is to have people regularly exercise. Don’t worry about hitting the targets but focus on your own abilities. The CDC recommends using the acronym S.M.A.R.T when deciding on an exercise plan.

S: Start low and go slow. Increase speed and length of exercise as you learn how your body reacts to the introduction.

M: Modify activity as necessary. Along the same lines as start low and go slow, your workout should be tailored to your abilities. Make adjustments as you go along to balance the rewards of exercise with the risk for increased pain.

A: Activity should be “joint friendly.” Find out what exercise puts the least amount of pressure on your joints so you don’t do accidental harm during physical activity. It’s important not to twist or pound joints during a workout, so consider how joints are affected by each exercise. 

R: Recognize safe places and ways to be active. Ask your doctor for an exercise plan, search for one online or join a fitness group so you know that your routine is beneficial. If working out alone, stay on a level surface in a well-lit area to avoid injury.

T: Talk to a health professional. Your doctor should be able to give you advice on a physical activity plan while managing the addition of medications, if necessary.

Is there a magic number?

A study published in Arthritis Care and Research determined that osteoarthritis pain is best prevented or managed with at least 6,000 steps per day. Researchers collected data on 1,788 people who had or were at risk of developing osteoarthritis. Walking levels were measured over seven days and functional limitation was calculated two years later.

Results showed that functional limitation was decreased by roughly 17 percent for every 1,000 steps participants added to their daily totals. People who walked less than 6,000 steps showed the most limitation, causing researchers to count that number as the threshold. 

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