Get the Most From Your Joints
Use 'em or lose 'em.
That's the short answer to this important question: How can we keep our joints healthy and strong?
Of course, there's more to it than that. Joint health depends on many factors, including the interplay of body weight, flexibility, strength, genetics, injury and overuse.
Bodies in Motion
It all starts with movement. The more joints move, the stronger the protective muscles around them become.
"Simple forms of exercise that strengthen muscles and maintain muscle mass, such as walking, water exercises, leg lifts and leg presses, are key in maintaining joints," says Margaret Michalska, MD, a rheumatologist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois.
Just don't overdo it, warns Brian J. Cole, MD, who heads the Cartilage Restoration Center at Rush. "If you have problems tolerating some activities, take the intensity level down a notch. It's important to respect the way you feel and adjust what you do so you can remain active."
Joints, Young and Old
Joints may cause different problems at different points in our lives. Younger people, for example, may experience joint pain linked to athletics, possibly because of tendonitis or another inflammation.
Older people, however, are more prone to osteoarthritis, the thinning and breakdown of cartilage between bones, which can cause joint pain. Osteoarthritis can have many causes, including genetic defects, injury or obesity.
Avoid joint problems
Here are some ways you can keep your joints operating at their peak performance levels.
- Maintain your ideal body weight. "The number one issue in protecting our joints is to reduce the weight they must support," Cole says. "For lower extremities — hips, knees, feet and ankles — obesity adds to the load." Even losing a little weight can reduce joint stress and decrease pain significantly, Michalska says.
- Stretch. It's important for everyone, not just athletes, to take regular stretching breaks throughout the day so that muscles and ligaments stay strong and flexible. For examples of simple stretches, read "Stretching for Healthy Joints."
- Wear the right gear. Use appropriate safety equipment when riding your bike or your skateboard or doing similar activities. Knee, elbow and wrist pads or braces can help prevent injury and simultaneously support joints. It's also important to use the right footwear for your activity. Wearing running shoes to run, tennis shoes for tennis and so forth will help you enjoy your sport and reduce your chances of injury. See the story on page 1 to learn more about footwear.
- Practice good posture. By standing up straight, you can better protect the joints in your neck, back, hips and knees.
- Pay attention to pain. If a joint hurts after an activity, you may have overstressed it. Long-term, repetitive joint stress can accelerate joint wear and tear.
"It's not true that you need to exercise through the pain," Michalska says. "Be aware of what hurts and rest when it does."
Helping the Hurt
If your joints bother you, simple remedies, such as an over-the-counter pain reliever or an ice pack on the tender area, may help for occasional relief.
In addition, Cole often recommends the nutritional supplements glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate, along with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory pain relievers, especially for patients with advanced arthritis. He says they are effective, have few side effects and are relatively inexpensive.
But if you're having persistent pain, it's time to see your doctor. That's especially true if you have significant joint swelling or stiffness, pain at night or pain during routine activities.
A medical evaluation is the first step to protecting your joints, staying active and feeling better.
To make an appointment with a physician at Rush, call (888) 352-RUSH (888 352-7874).
More Information at Your Fingertips
Some more articles on joint health:
Orthopedic Care and Services at
Rush University Medical Center in Chicago
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