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Staying ahead of arthritis

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Good diet, exercise, posture can help


Story by Sara Rae Lancaster

Physical activity — whatever the season — sometimes brings aches and pains that can act as not-too-subtle reminders of one’s ... ahem ... “senior” status.

Hello, arthritis.

Arthritis is not a single disease, but rather a term that covers more than 100 medical conditions that affect the body’s joints. Osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, refers to the progressive wearing down of cartilage between the joints. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, osteoarthritis affects more than 27 million Americans, and the chances of developing the condition increase sharply after age 45.

But there is good news. There are plenty of natural ways to not only manage, but prevent arthritis pain.

Cut back on calories

Extra calories from foods high in fat and sugar contribute to weight gain, which in turn contributes to the progression of knee osteoarthritis.

Steven Kenzer, DO, attending rheumatologist at Aurora Medical Center, explained that “heavy weight accelerates knee, hip and spine osteoarthritis. If you take your body weight and multiply it by four, that is the amount of pressure applied to each knee when you walk.”

Even a modest weight loss can make a significant difference. Losing just 10 pounds creates a 40 pound reduction in the force absorbed by the knees, thus reducing arthritis-related knee pain, he said.

“We can’t say maintaining a healthy weight will prevent arthritis,” Kenzer said. “But I can say that if you’re 400 pounds, you have a much greater propensity to develop arthritis in your knees, and even in your spine, than if you’re 175 pounds.”

Work out smarter, not harder

Eating a healthy diet and maintaining a healthy weight are only part of the equation. Exercise is equally important. When someone has arthritis, movement can improve one’s range of motion and strengthen the muscles surrounding the joints, thus decreasing pain. The key, however, is finding the right kind and amount of exercise.

“The important thing is to avoid major trauma to a joint,” Kenzer said. “During exercise, pain should be your biggest indicator. If you’re using those joints and there is pain, you need to back off.”

Exercises that promote healthy muscles around the joints but don’t cause damage to the joints themselves are best. Kenzer recommended focusing on low impact aerobic activities, such as cycling or swimming, as well as range of motion exercises, stretching and strength training.

Practice good posture

Mom knew best when she said, “Stand up straight.” It turns out good, neutral body mechanics throughout life lead to healthy joints later in life. Yoga is one way people can improve and maintain good posture, plus reap the additional exercise benefits linked to combating arthritis pain.

Before Kim Brandes started teaching yoga, she experienced its healing benefits firsthand. For several years, Brandes experienced nagging back pain. Though not arthritis related, it was interfering with her day-to-day life, and a lengthy list of treatment and pain relief modalities left her without relief.

“I had tried everything, so as a last resort I signed up for a 20-week yoga class,” she said. “Twenty weeks later, my back was at about 99 percent of where I wanted it to be. I was just so ecstatic at the results, I needed to share it with the community.”

Today, she teaches those same healing movements and poses at her studio Yoga for Life in Bristol.

Strength and flexibility are the two greatest gifts yoga can give someone suffering from arthritis, she said.

“When we work on strengthening poses, it helps us with our spine alignment, which in turn improves our posture,” she said. “That’s really important for someone with arthritis because if you have strong muscles, it stabilizes and protects your joints.”

She gave the example of the chair pose, called Utkatasana, which strengthens the trunk and lower body.

“If you have strong quads, you’re protecting your knee cartilage, your knee ligaments and your knee joints because in your motions — walking, running, everything — you’re relying more on the muscle strength and not wearing down the knee cartilage,” Brandes explained.

Where arthritis restricts one’s range of motion, yoga increases it.

“Many exercises are beneficial to someone with arthritis,” Brandes said, “but especially those low-impact, flexibility- enhancing movements, which is exactly what yoga is.”

Try alternative healing methods

For those who prefer a deep tissue massage to practicing downward dogs, a study at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland showed that alternative medicine and health treatments like massage, acupuncture and chiropractic care have also shown success in relieving arthritis pain.

Kenzer agreed, saying, “Alternative methods like massage, acupuncture and chiropractic have shown some success for pain relief of osteoarthritis. Does it prevent further progression? No. But it does offer pain relief.”

Licensed massage therapist Dirk Ingram of Kenosha specializes in neuromuscular trigger point work, a deep tissue form of massage therapy designed to offer effective relief of muscular and skeletal pain symptoms attributed to chronic pain, such as arthritis.

“A trigger point is sort of like a microchip in a muscle that tells how tight that muscle should be. Things like ergonomics, physical and emotional stress and arthritis discomfort can cause the muscle to be tighter than needed and also cause nerve impingement,” Ingram explained. “By massaging the trigger point, I can regulate blood flow to the muscle to let it know its OK to relax.”

As Ingram explained, the discomfort associated with arthritis causes the inflamed joint’s peripheral muscles to do something called splinting.

“Or tighten to protect that joint,” he said. “That tightness can cause it’s own discomfort. So while I’m not creeping into the joint and massaging the joint to relieve arthritis pain, massage is doing a magnificent job addressing collateral damages and discomfort.”

Massage can also help reduce pain perception.

“Arthritis is a stress to the system,” Ingram said. “Any time you’re able to alleviate the stress to the system, you’re able to increase the chance that there will be a reduction in pain perception.”

It works because massage elicits a parasympathetic nervous system response, or, in contrast to the body’s sympathetic system that causes the “fight or flight” response, a “relax and renew” response.

While there are several things a person can control when it comes to preventing or alleviating arthritis-related joint pain, there is one thing they cannot — genetics.

“There are some genetics that play a role in whether someone is going to develop arthritis regardless,” Kenzer said. “You could do all this, and still develop osteoarthritis down the road.”

However, following these tips — maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, practicing yoga, and supplementing alternative treatment modalities can not only help to delay the onset of osteoarthritis, but make it possible for those already with arthritis to lead a life with less pain and greater health.

Yoga improves flexibility, balance

Lisa Rohrbach doesn’t have arthritis, and she hopes to keep it that way. It’s part of the reason she took up yoga a few years ago and continues to practice at least twice a week.

“One of the biggest benefits I have found is that I don’t feel stiff or have joint pain in the morning anymore,” she said. “I am entering my 50s, so I do have the occasional creaks and cracks in my joints, but I don’t feel like I have to walk around awhile to get my bones moving.”

Rohrbach, who lives in Burlington, attributes her lack of joint stiffness to the specific stretches and poses done in class that work to improve flexibility.

“You’re keeping those muscles stretched and alive, so they don’t contort or shrink,” she explained.

Not only does her yoga practice allow her to walk tall, she also attributes it to an improved sense of balance.

“I used to shake like a leaf during a pose,” she said. Even simple household tasks have become easier.

“Vacuuming, working in the garden, even playing with the dogs — it’s so much easier and so much more enjoyable,” she said. “You look forward to working in the yard on Saturday, because you’re not worried about how it’s going to affect you the next day.”

That sense of freedom to move through life’s activities without worry or pain is why Rohrbach encourages seniors to try yoga, whether they have arthritis or not.

“You don’t have to accept getting older,” she said. “Just allow your body to do what it can do. It’s all about you. It’s your journey.”