Ease joint pain with tender loving care

Last month I wrote about osteoporosis, a condition in which our bones get thinner. I told you that this month I would write about a different “osteo” (bone) disease. It is called osteoarthritis or OA.

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease of the joints. It generally affects the knees, hips, spine, hands and, for some, the feet. More than 21 million people in the United States have this disease in varying degrees.

This joint disease primarily affects the cartilage, a tissue that acts as a shock absorber between our joints to cushion them as we move through the day. There are other factors that help make the joints sort of slippery, too. By the time we reach 60 to 80 years of age the surface of that cartilage may have become thinner or even flaked off and worn away. The ends of the bones once covered by it then rub against each other causing pain and loss of motion of the joint. Sometimes the cartilage even tears, causing bone spurs to develop at the edge of the joint increasing a person’s level of pain.

What causes us to get osteoarthritis? There are four main reasons why people develop osteoarthritis.

• Genetics – Heredity often plays a role in who develops the condition, but not necessarily how involved it can be. If your parents had knee, hip, spine, back or finger problems, you may, too.

• Obesity – The three joints most commonly affected are our knees, hips and back. Overweight people put extra pressure on these joints causing them to wear out and lose cartilage too soon.

• Injury – If you played a lot of sports and suffered injuries, there is a chance you will develop arthritis in joints that were injured, especially if these injuries were fairly frequent.

• Overuse – If you had a job that required you to do the same action over and over again – carrying heavy objects, bending and standing, working on an assembly line, wrapping packages – chances are that you could develop osteoarthritis.

So we think we have OA, what are we going to do about it? Suffer in silence and groan out loud every time we stand up? Or are we going to be proactive and get help? I choose the second. Let’s put together a plan.

First, make an appointment with your doctor for two weeks from now. During the next two weeks keep a “pain diary” using a scale of 1 to 10 to rank the level of your pain, with 10 being the worst pain you have ever felt. For example: Monday morning, my knee, pain 7, took a shower and Ibuprofen; 3 p.m., pain 4, took Tylenol; bedtime, pain 6, took ibuprofen. Also, write down any physical activity that day – walking, shopping, gardening, swimming, etc.

Go to the doctor prepared to tell the truth. Tell him or her what is going on and how it is affecting your life. Doctors are not mind readers. Don’t think you are just a whiner, be specific. Has the pain kept you from doing things you usually do? Is it worse in the morning, afternoon or evening? If your hands are bothered, are you able to cook for yourself? Does the pain just wear you down? What have you done to try to deal with the pain? Has it worked?

A doctor will test your joints’ ability to move, may order an X-ray or blood tests and/or may prescribe medication. Your doctor may also send you to a physical or occupational therapist to help you rebuild weak muscles or learn new ways of doing regular activities.

You may also receive a prescription for exercise. What? Me? It will hurt!

Whether you believe it or not, every study done in the past 20 years shows exercise is one of the best treatments for osteoarthritis. Why? Exercise relieves aching, strengthens areas around sore joints, increases your flexibility, improves blood flow to the joint, promotes fitness, makes you stronger and, most importantly of all, improves your mood and your outlook.

I am not talking about hard core aerobics, kick-boxing or running a marathon, but kinder, gentler exercise. Try walking or swimming and gentle stretching.

Will you feel better if you follow your doctor’s orders? Yes, although it make take a while. However, you can do even more. In addition to good medical care there are things we can all do to bring comfort to sore joints:

• Hot and cold comfort: heating pads, a sock filled with rice and heated in a microwave and applied to a sore joint, a warm bath or shower can bring comfort to sore areas. Some people find using an ice pack on a sore joint is better for them.

• Hot wax dip: dipping sore hands into a bath of warm, liquid paraffin and then wrapping them in plastic wrap is a wonderful pain reliever for sore hands. Units can be purchased at larger stores or pharmacies. My daughter has used this therapy.

• Massage: long, soothing strokes along sore joints can be a godsend, along with a regular massage.

– Ointment: Some people swear by this comfort therapy that can bring warmth to a sore joint. People often swear it is the only way they can get to sleep.

• Acupuncture: the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases is following studies of acupuncture treatment of patients who have knee osteoarthritis. Early results show that it is effective in some patients in terms of reducing pain and improving function.

• Exercise: a chair yoga class that stresses slow, smooth and gentle movement along with gentle, deep breathing and stretching is the best choice, along with swimming, for exercise if you have arthritis.

• Tools: several years ago I came across a line of kitchen and yard tools make by a company called OXO. The handles are larger and soft making it easier to do all kinds of work – a trowel, potato peeler, can opener, jar opener, scrub brushes, corn holders, grater, etc. They can also be found online.

Two good Web sites with a lot of valuable information are:

• www.niams, (offers free books and pamphlets)

• (provides a lot of good information as well as a slide show of exercises for those with OA in the knee)

I know osteoarthritis can range from a minor annoyance to severe pain, but we can try our very best to do something about it by working with our doctor to make the best of the situation.

Come on Seniors, let’s kick old “Uncle Arthur” to the side of the road.

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