Years ago, in Morocco to write a travel story, I rode my first camel. Who knew that those stubborn, one-humped Dromedaries don’t simply sit to let you dismount—they lunge forward. And so, alas, did I, landing squarely on my right hip. Since it bothered me only intermittently, I stupidly didn’t get it checked out— for two decades. And just recently, much to my dismay, it was confirmed that osteoarthritis (OA) had set into the joint. So suffice it to say that I am writing this column from a personal—albeit painful—perspective.
Often the long-term result of an untreated injury, arthritis affects not only the joints but the tissues that surround them, along with other connective tissue. It’s certainly not uncommon. According to the Arthritis Foundation, it is the leading cause of disability in the United States, striking 50 million Americans, or one in every five adults. And it is not just a disease of old age; two-thirds of the people with arthritis are under age 65.
Although Rheumatoid Arthritis, an autoimmune disease, is by far more serious, OA can be progressive and degenerative, characterized by the breakdown of joint cartilage associated with risk factors such as obesity, a history of joint injuries and unusual physical stress. It can also come from everyday wear and tear of the knees, hips, hands, shoulders and spine, which is, alas, associated with getting older. The joints, without the healthy cushion of shock-absorbing cartilage that covers the bones, begin to grind against one another, causing pain, swelling and stiffness.
Scientists are studying factors that may cause arthritis such as genetics, autoimmune disorders, lifestyle and environment. While there is no cure to date, there are many things you can do about it—especially if you have osteoarthritis. Medications aside, such lifestyle modifications as proper exercise, sound nutrition and a healthy frame of mind go a long way toward relieving the pain, slowing down the progression, and even delaying the onset. That said, here are 12 suggestions to help you go about your daily activities with ease, feeling even Better Than Before.
Less is more. There are some age and genetic components to osteoarthritis, but small behavior modifications can make a huge difference. “If you are overweight, meaning that your body mass index is 25 or greater, know that even one extra pound is the equivalent of four pounds of pressure over each knee,” says Dr. Patience White, vice president of public health for the Arthritis Foundation. “If you lose just 5 pounds, that’s 20 pounds less stress on your knees, and your hips and back as well.”
Shift your focus. Certainly a chronic condition can compromise your everyday life, and it’s not unusual to long for the “old you.” But focusing on your pain can cause it to become even more unbearable. “Feelings of sadness and anger may precede recognition of the kinds of burdens your arthritis has placed on your work function and/or outlook on life,” says Roberta Horton, director of the department of social work programs at Hospital for Special Surgery in NYC. “Mood changes in the context of new life challenges are very normal and understandable.” She suggests trying to find ways to communicate your concerns with others who can offer support and help with problem solving so that you feel less alone. If these feelings persist, you may want to consider professional counseling.
Calm yourself down. “Anyone with arthritis knows the meaning of constant pain,” says Dr. Barry Sears, best-selling author of the The Zone and founder of the Inflammation Research Foundation. And what causes that pain is inflammation. One of best ways to combat inflammation is to follow an anti-inflammatory diet rich in fresh vegetables and omega-3 fatty acids (in fatty fish such as salmon and sardines, as well as walnuts, soy beans, flax seeds, canola oil and pumpkin seeds) and low in animal fats. Leave the white carbohydrates (bread, pasta, rice and potatoes) off the plate.
Schedule a joint session. “It may seem counter-intuitive, but one of the most effective methods for decreasing joint pain and stiffness is regular exercise,” says Marc Perry, founder of BuiltLean. Research has shown that exercise can increase bone density, keep joints stable, improve joint function and flexibility, decrease pain and improve balance. While there are many different exercise methods to choose from, your exercise routine should incorporate resistance training (light weights, machines or resistance bands), low-impact aerobics (brisk walking, cycling, or swimming) and stretching. If you are experiencing substantial pain, consider swimming or water aerobics, which provide resistance with very little impact.
Kid rocks. When your insides are in pain from arthritis, making your outside feel better can really help your state of mind. So try to be a little kinder to your epidermis by seeking out extra-gentle skin care regimens. Products made from goat milk are super-soothing as they have almost exactly the same pH level as our skin and, like goat milk itself, are high in skin nourishing vitamin A and lactic acid. Says P.J. Jonas, founder of the family-run company, Goat Milk Stuff, in Charlestown, Ind., “While the benefits of goat milk soap are most often noticeable in treating such conditions as severely dry skin, psoriasis, eczema, rosacea, split fingertips and even signs of aging, many of my customers have reported that the soaps featuring peppermint essential oils have also brought relief from joint pain when used with hot water.”
Twist again. Studies have shown that some alternative therapies can have a positive effect on helping manage arthritis symptoms. A friend of mine swears that gin-soaked raisins make her feel better. She claims that the juniper in gin are anti-inflammatory and therefore make the pain less. (I say it’s the alcohol!) More scientific is a study by University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine researchers who examined the effects of lyengar yoga, which focuses on posture and breath control, for people with osteoarthritis of the knee. After an eight-week course of weekly 90-minute classes, there was a statistically significant reduction in pain, physical function and mood.
Rally the troops. Patricia Connorton Kagerer, author of Wise Irish Women, relates how her mother, a nurse, suffered from extreme arthritis and knew that exercise would help keep her weight under control and her joints from stiffening even more. But she needed incentive—and that encouragement came from a physical therapist and her grandchildren. “Did you do your exercise homework?” her kids would say. They would keep track of how many reps Grandma did with her exercise bands, cheering and clapping as she completed each set. This became their after-school routine. After just a short period of time, Patricia’s mother began to feel better and was grateful that her family inspired her to stick with her therapy.
Change the view. “Viewing your arthritis as an opportunity to make choices for the growth of your soul often contributes to a reduction of any distress you may feel,” says Susan Apollon, author of Touched by the Extraordinary, Book Two. “How you choose to view your circumstances impacts whether the experience feels good or not good. And seeing it as an opportunity to learn something about yourself or life can reduce discomfort.” Susan feels that your perspective can create miracles of healing. “As you recognize that you have the power to change your physiology with your breath and thoughts, you will come to sense that you are more powerful than you had originally thought.”
Bend the rules. My friend Debby is determined not to let her arthritis get the better of her. Having no time to go to a gym, she has created her own fitness program. “I don’t use a footstool or grabber in the kitchen as I prefer to have to stretch and reach to get things down,” she says. “I bend and stretch and do the floors by hand. When I put things away that I use regularly, I place them at the back of the cabinet instead of the front. I then have to bend down and reach back to get things out.” She takes the stairs when she can, too. “Some days I don’t want to walk up six flights of stairs to my apartment,” she says. “But I still walk up two to three and catch the elevator up from there.”
Bring it on home. “It is important to incorporate a good home care therapy plan to help arthritic sufferers decrease and alleviate symptoms,” says John Gallucci, Jr., founder/president of JAG Physical Therapy, and a sports medicine consultant for the National Football League and National Basketball Association. He recommends doing 10 minutes of gentle stretching exercises every morning to relax stiff muscles along with applying ice when in pain (15 minutes on at a time, four times a day) or heat when feeling stiffness (15 minutes on at a time, four times a day). Sleeping 8 -10 hours a night and taking naps during the day can help you recover from a flare-up more quickly and may even help prevent flare-ups. Also, avoid staying in one position for too long and positions or movements that place extra stress on your sore joints.
Share the joy. My husband, The Lawyer, has pretty severe arthritis in both his knees. He talks constantly about having them replaced. When I discussed with him my interview with White and how exercising and losing just 10 percent of his body weight could reduce the pain by 50 percent, he made a huge effort to not only lose a couple of pounds—but to make use of that stationary bike that beckons him from our bedroom. The good news is that his pain (read: complaining about it) is now much less. And that’s not only a reward for him—but for me as well.
Walk it out. The Arthritis Walk is the Arthritis Foundation’s nationwide signature event that supports public awareness and raises funds to fight arthritis, the nation’s most common cause of disability. It is a tremendous opportunity to help improve the lives of the 50 million men, women and children with arthritis. To sign up for a walk in your area, visit www.letsmovetogether.org.