Living fully with arthritis

Nik Mattson. PT

Summer is here – a great time to enjoy wonderful weather and activities outdoors with friends and family.  For those with arthritis, staying active can be challenging.  But with knowledge, care and assistance, maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle is possible.  

Arthritis is a general term that encompasses over 100 diagnoses that refer to joint pain or swelling. With more than 50 million Americans being diagnosed with arthritis, there is a chance you or someone you know may experience arthritis at some point in life.  Although there is such a high prevalence, not everyone is educated in how to manage arthritis or its associated pain. 

There are several types of arthritis that can affect all ages. The most common are osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Osteoarthritis is the most common diagnosis which is the breakdown of cartilage around joints due to overuse, poor body mechanics, and injury. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease in which the lining of the joints becomes inflamed causing joint derangement and pain flare-ups. All of these diagnoses can cause significant changes in lifestyle and decrease your ability to perform daily tasks. 

Pain management often comes in the form of a prescription pain medication. Unfortunately, there is a current crisis in America related to the overuse of pain medication, and not all forms of arthritis respond favorably to this. We recommend pursuing avenues that promote safe movement, appropriate physical activity, overall wellness, and an active lifestyle.  One area of your life that can greatly impact the way you perceive and experience the pain of arthritis is through movement.  

Maintaining quality movement and an active lifestyle is important for many reasons. An active lifestyle can help delay the onset of arthritis-related disability; help manage other conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity; and decrease the debilitating effects of a sedentary (non-active) lifestyle. 

The Centers for Disease Control recommends a S.M.A.R.T. approach to managing arthritis through movement:

Start low and go slow. 

Modify activity while trying to stay active. 

Activities should be “joint friendly.” 

Recognize safe places and ways to be active. 

Talk to a healthcare professional for appropriate physical activity to manage your symptoms. 

Choosing an active lifestyle is a great way to delay or prevent the long-lasting effects of arthritis. However, if you are not currently an active individual and wish to start an exercise program or simply wish to lead a more wellness-oriented lifestyle, it will be beneficial to seek out advice from a healthcare professional.  According to the American Heart Association, older adults over 50 years old should perform moderate-intensity aerobic activity five days per week as well as flexibility three days per week.

You can still achieve an active lifestyle even with an arthritis diagnosis by modifying your movements. For example, choosing low impact, non-twisting exercises will help you feel more comfortable and confident in your exercise routine. Pool exercises, walking, tai-chi, dancing, or modified cycling can be a great way to achieve the cardiovascular benefits of exercise with decreased impact on your joints. It is best to avoid activities that require excessive twisting or jumping to avoid unnecessary stress on the joints.

Seeing a physical therapist (PT) is a great way to kick-start your new routine in a safe and effective way. PTs are movement experts with a common goal to prevent physical impairment and restore functional ability through use of exercise, education, and physical modalities. Specifically with an arthritis diagnosis, your PT can help you improve and maintain the use and range of motion of your arthritic joints, reduce pain and stiffness, and help keep you living an active and independent lifestyle.  

Occupational therapists (OTs) can also be effective in helping reduce stress on joints used to perform activities needed for independent daily life. If you are having difficulty with cooking, getting up from your favorite chair, putting on your shirt or pants, going to the bathroom, or even getting in or out of bed, an OT can help modify these movements for greater efficiency and less pain. PTs and OTs can help determine the best assistive device for enhancing mobility as well, such as a walker, cane, or manual or power wheelchair.

Speech Language Pathologists (SLPs) can help with communication and cognition changes related to arthritis. If you are having pain with swallowing or chewing, SLPs can suggest a modified diet or collaborate with OTs to determine the most appropriate utensils. If your PT and OT suggest a change in routine that you have difficulty remembering frequently, SLPs can also assist with strategies for remembering new processes to live a more optimal life. 

It is important also to seek out advice from your medical doctor if you are experiencing pain that is constantly stabbing or sharp, pain that causes you to change the way you walk or require a new assistive device, pain that is worse at night or that lasts longer than 12 hours, pain or swelling that does not change with medication or the use of hot or cold packs, or increases in joint swelling with redness and warmth. Ask your physician if physical therapy may be beneficial for you. 

Achieving an active, fulfilling lifestyle is still possible with a diagnosis of arthritis. Through simple movement modifications and appreciating the specific needs of your body, you can live life fully with arthritis!

Nik Mattson is a Physical Therapist providing services to Benedictine Home Health, Benedictine St. Catherines and Benedictine Siena Court.

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