Many strategies are currently available to improve the quality of life for those of us with osteoarthritis. Strategies such as surgery, medication, physical therapy and assistive devices generally involve prescription by a doctor. In this article I will discuss other strategies that we as patients can use. Taking charge of your own health is truly empowering!
First, it is helpful to gather information about your experience of arthritis. I suggest keeping a daily record for at least a month with the following information: presence or absence of pain, location(s) of pain, degree of pain on a 1-10 scale, medications or therapy, exercise, hours of sleep, and any disturbance of daily activities due to the pain. Because pain varies with the day and even the hour, it is important to keep records so you can look for a pattern. Remember, arthritis affects different people in different ways. You can help yourself by becoming an expert on how it affects you.
Second, in most cases mild to moderate exercise is beneficial for osteoarthritis, even though it may be painful at first. A complete arthritis exercise program is similar to that advised for all adults: aerobic exercise to strength the cardiovascular system, strength training to keep the muscles in shape, and stretching/ range of motion exercises to keep muscles and joints flexible. The latter type of exercise is most important for osteoarthritis, since it helps prevent or slow the loss of function in the joints. However, all three are needed to keep our bodies healthy.
Walking is an excellent low-impact aerobic exercise. Walking or other exercise in water is even better. The water cushions the impact on the joints, yet requires more use of the muscles to move against the fluidís resistance. Thus a water aerobics workout is actually more efficient at boosting cardiovascular health. Also a pool can be heated, and the warmth will relax the muscles (so they do not resist against movements, producing injury) and loosen the joints.
I personally enjoy yoga for stretching and range of motion. It also strengthens the muscles (try holding a Warrior 3 pose for a minute or two!) and improves balance, which is essential for protecting your mobility. Yoga can be intense, and sometimes the pain I am experiencing makes it near impossible. I have found Pilates to be less intense, but of course ordinary stretching is just fine. Be sure to stretch the muscles throughout your body, not just the area that is painful. The same is true for range of motion (ROM) exercises. Keep in mind as you do ROM that you do not push yourself too hard. Ideally there should be no more than slight pain as you rotate or bend the joint. The slight pain lets you know when you have reached your limit. With practice your ROM will increase.
Third, appropriate nutrition can significantly alter an individualís experience of arthritis pain. Protein is essential in building your muscles, while calcium-rich foods promote bone density. Since some pain medications may cause constipation, maintain a fiber-rich diet. Cruciferous vegetables, including Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and bok choy, improve immune system function. A healthy immune system helps prevent illness of all types, which may aggravate arthritis pain.
Fourth, consider the environment. Have you ever felt that you could predict the weather by the level of your pain? Some studies suggest that the pain of osteoarthritis is increased when barometric pressure falls. The theory behind this phenomenon is that small changes in air pressure allow the joint to swell imperceptibly (possibly pressing against nerves), causing pain to worsen. Another study that examined knee osteoarthritis found that air temperature was also related to pain Ė lower temperatures meant increased pain.
If you have determined (using your symptom diary suggested above) that weather appears to be a factor in your arthritis pain, you may want to keep a close eye on weather forecasts. When air pressure or temperature is expected to fall, medication, warmth, relaxation, or stretching can help to ease the effects.
Finally, I have found that my emotional, social and spiritual practices strongly influence my perception of arthritis pain. Frustration, anger and sadness are a part of life. It cannot be escaped, but it can be expressed. When I talk about my feelings with a trusted friend, they donít linger in my mind to increase my physical pain. Speaking of friends, contact and interaction with other people is also a powerful way to decrease pain. Similarly, spiritual (not necessarily religious) practices are very important in coping with pain. Prayer, meditation, doing good for others, and attending worship encourage an optimistic attitude which is much better than the opposite!
I hope you will find some of my tips helpful. I have written this in a very general way, so please feel free to contact me if you have questions about specific issues! I will do my best to provide the information you need.