As a physical therapist, I see a fair amount of people with arthritis, particularly osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is a condition in which the healthy space in a joint diminishes. The cartilage, a natural shock absorber, has torn or thinned, and the joint becomes stiff and achy. Most people with arthritis have a hard time moving because of this stiffness and pain, and although people with arthritis tend to avoid moving due to the pain, movement is exactly what their achy joints need!
Inactivity is a risk factor for developing arthritis. Why is inactivity so bad for arthritis? Doesn’t less movement mean less “wear and tear?” In reality, inactivity causes cartilage to get thin and weak, increasing its risk of tearing and reducing its ability to be a natural shock absorber. Cartilage actually gets its nutrition from the pressure caused by weight-bearing activities. Arthritis causes movement to hurt, but movement is what actually will restore motion to the joint and help to prevent further deterioration to the joint’s cartilage. Movement is like the oil can for the tin man. It gets our joints’ natural lubricants moving and circulating. It helps to keep our cartilage healthy. Also, staying active keeps our muscles stronger so that they are supporting and stabilizing our joints as they should and helping to absorb shock so that our cartilage doesn’t take a beating. Objects at rest, tend to stay at rest. Bodies in motion tend to stay in motion. If you’re a physics geek, you’d know that Newton described this in his first law of motion, and I think it applies to arthritis as well. People who have arthritis and are inactive, tend to stay inactive. If you want to get moving and stay moving, start moving!
There are some simple things you can do to prevent and manage arthritis. Move the joints and stretch periodically during the day. Exercise. It doesn’t have to be anything too crazy or complicated. Simply, just start walking more. You can get a pedometer to keep track of how many steps you take in a day. If you’re healthy, shoot for 10,000 steps a day, however, research suggests that as little as 6,000 steps a day can reduce disability related to knee arthritis.1 This amounts to about an hour of walking, though it varies depending on your height and step length.2 The walking doesn’t have to be continuous either. It can be spread out over the course of the day. With a little extra walking here and there, you’ll be at 6,000 steps before you know it.
Although walking is a good start, in order to have a complete plan for preventing or managing arthritis, you should also incorporate strengthening and stretching. It’s a good rule to strengthen all of the muscles surrounding a joint to keep it supported and protected. When stretching, follow this same rule, or for a good whole body stretch, try yoga.
If you have arthritis or think you have arthritis, ask your doctor about physical therapy. A physical therapist will be able to give you a customized exercise plan to address a loss of strength, flexibility, or joint range of motion. Physical therapists also utilize hands-on techniques to improve the glide of the joint, to loosen the muscles around the joint, and to help manage the pain. Physical therapy can help you preserve your ability to function independently and to continue doing the things you love, all with less pain.
Monique Serpas, PT, DPT, OCS. is a physical therapist and board-certified Orthopaedic Clinical Specialist practicing at Touro Infirmary in New Orleans, LA. Monique realizes how difficult it can be to overcome an injury or manage a chronic condition and is focused on helping her clients achieve wellness through a physically active lifestyle. Monique treats orthopaedic, balance, and vestibular disorders using a combination of hands-on manual therapy, therapeutic exercise, and education. This enables patients to assist in their own recovery and injury prevention. Monique holds a Doctor of Physical Therapy from Concordia University Wisconsin (2008) and a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology from Louisiana State University (2004). She is a member of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), Louisiana Physical Therapy Association (LPTA), and the Orthopaedic and Neurology sections of the APTA.
1 Daniel K. White, Catrine Tudor-Locke, Yuqing Zhang, Roger Fielding, Michael LaValley, David T. Felson, K. Douglas Gross, Michael C. Nevitt, Cora E. Lewis, James Torner, Tuhina Neogi. Daily walking and the risk of incident functional limitation in knee OA: An observational study. Arthritis Care & Research, 2014; DOI: 10.1002/acr.22362
2 Tudor-Locke C, Craig CL, Aoyagi Y, et al. How many steps/day are enough? For older adults and special populations. The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2011;8:80. doi:10.1186/1479-5868-8-80.