Joint pain...is it osteoarthritis?
Your knee aches from time to time. Or maybe your fingers don't seem as nimble as they used to be. Could it be osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, develops when cartilage, the flexible tissue lining the joints, deteriorates. As a result, the space between bones gradually narrows and the bone surfaces change shape. Over time, this leads to joint damage and pain.
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People with osteoarthritis often have it in more than one joint. It is most common in the knee, hip, lower back, and neck, and in certain finger joints. The symptoms of osteoarthritis usually develop over many years, and many of the early symptoms are the same no matter which joint it starts in. The first sign is often pain in a joint after strenuous activity or overusing the joint. The joint may be stiff in the morning, but loosen up after a few minutes of movement. Or the joint may be mildly tender, and movement may cause a crackling or grating sensation. Some people have continual joint pain that interferes with sleep.
But some telltale signs of osteoarthritis are specific to certain joints. If you're experiencing any of the types of joint pain listed below, ask your doctor to check you for osteoarthritis.
- Knees. When osteoarthritis affects the knee, the result is pain, swelling, and stiffness of that joint. What starts out as some discomfort after a period of disuse can progress to difficulty walking, climbing, bathing, and getting in and out of bed.
- Hands. Osteoarthritis of the hand often starts with stiffness and soreness of the fingers and in the base of the thumb, particularly in the morning. You may find that it becomes harder to pinch, and that your joints crackle when moved. People with hand osteoarthritis may have difficulty doing routine movements, like opening a jar, turning a key, or typing.
- Hips and spine. When osteoarthritis affects the hip, pain may be felt in the groin, down the inside thigh, or even as far away as the knee. Osteoarthritis of the cervical spine (in the neck) can cause pain in the shoulders and arms. When it affects the lower spine, pain can spread to the buttocks or legs.
For more on keeping your joints healthy, plus ways to ease the pain caused by osteoarthritis, buy Living Well with Osteoarthritis, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.
4 ways exercise helps arthritis
Even the healthiest people can find it hard to stick with an exercise regimen — and if you suffer from the joint pain of arthritis, moving your body may be the last thing you want to think about. But regular exercise not only helps maintain joint function, it also relieves stiffness and reduces pain and fatigue.
If you have arthritis, you want to be sure your exercise routine has these goals in mind:
- A better range of motion (improved joint mobility and flexibility). To increase your range of motion, move a joint as far as it can go and then try to push a little farther. These exercises can be done any time, even when your joints are painful or swollen, as long as you do them gently.
- Stronger muscles (through resistance training). Fancy equipment isn't needed. You can use your own body weight as resistance to build muscle. For example, this simple exercise can help ease the strain on your knees by strengthening your thigh muscles: Sit in a chair. Now lean forward and stand up by using only your thigh muscles (use your arms for balance only). Stand a moment, then sit back down, using only your thigh muscles.
- Better endurance Aerobic exercise — such as walking, swimming, and bicycling — strengthens your heart and lungs and thereby increases endurance and overall health. Stick to activities that don't jar your joints, and avoid high-impact activities such as jogging. If you're having a flare-up of symptoms, wait until it subsides before doing endurance exercises.
- Better balance. There are simple ways to work on balance. For example, stand with your weight on both feet. Then try lifting one foot while you balance on the other foot for 5 seconds. Repeat on the other side. Over time, work your way up to 30 seconds on each foot. Yoga and tai chi are also good for balance.
Arthritis doesn't have to keep you from enjoying life. To learn the latest on new treatments and practical strategies for living well with arthritis, buy Living Well with Osteoarthritis, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.
Living Well with Osteoarthritis
|When joints cause pain
|What is osteoarthritis?
|Treating osteoarthritis without surgery
|Surgical treatment of osteoarthritis
|... and more!
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