Arthritis and Exercise

Exercise Your Joints

By Saralyn Switzer, Physical Therapist 

Almost everyone has heard of the term “arthritis.” Most likely it affects themselves or someone they know. It is important everyone is clear on what arthritis is and what exercises can improve their ability to participate in the things they love to do.

Arthritis affects joints and the soft tissues and connective tissues around them. Over 100 diseases and conditions fall into this category and include osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, gout, fibromyalgia, bursitis, rheumatic fever, and Lyme disease. Osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and fibromyalgia are the most common. There is an estimated 26.9 million adults in the US with osteoarthritis (OA), 13.9% 25 years old or older and 33.6% 65 years old or older. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) affects 2 million adults in the US.

Osteoarthritis, or “degenerative joint disease,” most often affects the hip, knee, foot, and hand — but can affect other joints as well. Degeneration of joint cartilage and changes in underlying bone and supporting tissues lead to pain, stiffness, movement problems, and activity limitations.
Rheumatoid arthritis is characterized by chronic inflammation of the joint lining. Symptoms include pain, stiffness, and swelling of multiple joints. The inflammation may extend to other joint tissues and cause bone and cartilage erosion, joint deformities, movement problems, and activity limitations. Rheumatoid arthritis can also affect connective tissue and blood vessels throughout the body, leading to inflammation in a variety of organs, including the lungs and heart.
Fibromyalgia is a pain syndrome involving muscle and muscle attachment areas. Common symptoms include widespread pain throughout the muscles of the body, sleep disorders, fatigue, headaches, and irritable bowel syndrome.

Because of these physical symptoms, people with arthritis tend to be less active and then be at more risk for other medical conditions. Health conditions such as high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity could all result from inactivity. Psychological stress and coping difficulties, financial burden of the loss of income, and social problems are all real issues that individuals with arthritis may be facing. Therefore, there are multiple aspects to the treatment of arthritis including medical management with medication, education, injury prevention, physical activity, weight management and nutrition, and surgery.

The limitation that arthritis brings on the joints and activity level is different for every person with arthritis. The recommended beginning level of exercise duration for adults with OA of the hip or knee is 60 minutes to 150 minutes per week. This should be low impact and moderate intensity aerobics, like water exercise, cycling, or walking. Also recommended is 2 days per week of muscle strengthening. People with fibromyalgia and RA are recommended to also include stretching, yoga, tai chi, and deep breathing in addition to the aerobic activity of walking or water exercise to help decrease pain and improve function, general health, and sleep. Exercise sessions can start with 10 minutes at a time and increase as strength and endurance improves.

To start this process the best thing to do is speak with your doctor to determine which treatment is appropriate for you. If you are facing flare ups of joints and limited movement or overall deconditioned and weakness due to arthritis, your doctor may recommend seeing a physical therapist to begin a prescribed exercise program and address your specific limitations.

References: Benefits of Exercise in Rheumatoid Arthritis

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