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Joints—we take them for granted unless something goes wrong. And new research shows more of us than ever can expect to feel creaky: One of the most common causes of joint pain, arthritis, affects us in much higher numbers and at an earlier age than previously thought. Close to one-third (31%) of women ages 18 to 64 suffer from its chronic aches or stiffness. The percentages climb to well above half for those over 65.
- RELATED: How to Prevent and Treat Arthritis
Osteoarthritis, the most prevalent form of arthritis, was once thought to be the inevitable result of wear and tear: Our joints, like the brake pads on a car, would eventually give out from all the miles we put on them. However, we now know that osteoarthritis is a complex condition influenced by a number of factors, many of which are within our control.
Learning to take good care of your joints doesn’t just help head off arthritis—it reduces the risk of injuries as well. “When it comes to joint problems, prevention really is the best medicine,” says Dominic King, DO, a sports medicine physician at the Cleveland Clinic’s Joint Preservation Center. It’s never too early to start.
6 Ways to Protect Your Joints
Watch your waistline.
“The single most important thing you can do for your joints is maintain a healthy weight,” says Richard Iorio, MD, codirector of the Joint Preservation and Arthritis Center at NYU Langone Health. Doing so minimizes the load on weight-bearing joints such as knees and hips—typically the biggest troublemakers. Because of gravity and biomechanics, knees bear a force three to six times your body weight when you walk. If you need to lose weight, even a small drop can have a big payoff: Shedding just 10 pounds reduces a woman’s chance of getting painful knee osteoarthritis by 50% and relieves at least 30 pounds of pressure from her knees. “Being overweight can also cause metabolic changes, such as diabetes, which increases inflammation throughout the body,” says Iorio. “Inflammation can further degrade the cartilage.”
Water makes up 80% of the body’s cartilage, explains King. “Well-hydrated tissue is more compressible and able to handle a heavier load.” (Imagine a wet sponge versus a dry one.) Drinking whenever you feel thirsty is still the simplest way to ensure your body gets all the fluid it needs, says King. If you’re too busy to make drinking a priority, King suggests a hydration-reminder app such as Daily Water. As a general rule, water should be your default, as opposed to energy drinks or soda.
Take a walk.
Movement lubricates joints. If your job requires you to sit all day or you love marathon Netflix binges, stand up at least once an hour and streeeeeeeetch your arms high or do an exaggerated march around the room, bringing your knees way up with each step. To keep limber, Lynn Millar, PhD, a professor of physical therapy at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina, works from a standing desk and regularly strolls around her office. “My colleagues see me roaming the halls every few hours,” she says.
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Work up a sweat.
Exercise stimulates the cartilage (keeping it strong) and builds the muscles around your joints so they can act as shock absorbers. Shoot for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week, of moderate exertion such as brisk walking, gardening or biking. If you tend to log the same old half hour on the treadmill day in, day out, switch up your routine so that different muscles and joints are engaged. “Doing the same motion over and over again can predispose a joint to injury,” says King. Add in sessions that will boost your flexibility, such as tai chi and gentle yoga, or ask if your gym offers special stretching and flexibility classes.
Ease into exercise.
One of the most common reasons for developing arthritis is a previous injury. Injuries to the knee’s anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) are more frequent in women than men and can greatly increase the chances of developing knee arthritis. “A proper dynamic warm-up can reduce your chances of injury by allowing joints to move safely and efficiently,” says Karen Litzy, DPT, spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association. Start with a low-intensity version of whatever exercise you’re planning. Walk for a few minutes before you run, or move through lifting motions several times before picking up actual weights. Also avoid “weekend warrior” injuries by building up to longer or more intense levels of activity gradually over days and weeks rather than taking on that 5K without any training.
Some fatigue or muscle soreness is normal after a good workout, says Hany Bedair, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. But if you have pain in a joint while exercising, that could be a sign of trouble. If so, give it a rest and switch to a lower-impact activity you can do comfortably (like swimming, biking or using an elliptical machine). If pain lasts more than a few days or interferes with daily life, see a doctor right away. Experts agree that getting early, appropriate treatment for minor issues can help you avoid bigger problems down the road.
Should you take supplements?
There are rows of them in the joint health section of the drugstore. Your 10K-running neighbor swears by them. Can they really help protect your joints? Experts are skeptical. Since glucosamine and chondroitin are substances that occur naturally in cartilage, the idea is to bathe your joints with more of the good stuff. “But it hasn’t been proven that if you ingest them in a pill they will make their way into the joints,” says David Felson, MD, a rheumatologist and arthritis prevention specialist at Boston University School of Medicine. “It’s likely they’ll just get broken down by the digestive system.”
The most comprehensive study, the National Institute of Health’s Glucosamine/Chondroitin Arthritis Intervention Trial (GAIT), found that arthritis sufferers who took the two supplements showed no significant improvement in knee pain or function. However, a small subset of subjects with moderate to severe arthritis did report some pain relief. Orthopedic surgeon Hany Bedair notes that more recent research has not confirmed this effect, but he adds: “Some of my patients tell me they feel they’ve benefited.” Because arthritis is a complex disease, he says that trying supplements should be only one part of a multifaceted treatment plan.
On the Menu
In a recent study, subjects who ate the most fiber were less likely to have knee arthritis than those who ate the least. Abundant in fruit and veggies, fiber can help keep weight in check and may have anti-inflammatory properties.
People with the highest levels of vitamin K in their blood were less likely to develop knee arthritis, in one study. Boost your levels by eating spinach and other leafy greens, cabbage and cauliflower.
Research found that those who drank wine in moderation were less likely to have knee or hip arthritis. Beer drinkers, however, upped their risk. The difference may be due to the protective antioxidants in dark-skinned grapes.
On the rise: Hip replacements in people 45 to 54 more than tripled from 2000 to 2010.
Improve the health of your joints in just 10 minutes with stretches from physical therapist Karen Litzy.
Lie on your back and bring both knees to your chest to give them a “hug,” grabbing the back of your thighs rather than the front of knees or shins. Hold for a few breaths, then stretch one leg straight out while continuing to hug the other knee to your chest. If you feel you have to arch your lower back to get the free leg straight down to the floor, keep the free leg bent. Switch sides and repeat.
Sit up tall in a cross-legged position. If this is difficult, sit on a folded blanket or towels to allow some extra movement in the hips. Place your left hand behind your left side and your right hand on your left knee. Twist to the left as far as is comfortable. Hold for a few breaths, then twist to the right. Return to the center and reach forward with both hands as far as is comfortable. Switch sides and repeat.
On a soft mat, kneel on your right knee with the left foot out in front. Shift your weight onto the left foot as if moving into a lunge to feel a stretch in the right quadriceps. Straighten out the left leg and shift weight back onto the right leg. Keeping your back as straight as possible, bend forward from the waist until you feel a stretch in the back of your thigh. Flow back and forth a few times, then switch sides.
My Aching Joints!
Osteoarthritis isn’t the only cause. “Have lingering pain evaluated by a rheumatology specialist,” says David Daikh, MD, president of the American College of Rheumatology.
A misguided immune system attacks the joints, resulting in swelling, pain and permanent damage. With RA, many joints tend to be affected.
Joint pain and swelling can be accompanied by a range of all-over-the-body symptoms, including fatigue, hair loss, sensitivity to light, fever and rash.
Sufferers can experience widespread chronic joint and muscle pain along with fatigue, memory problems and mood changes.
During pregnancy, women’s joints become more lax to accommodate the growing baby and prepare the body for delivery. The result: sore, aching joints.