You're too young for arthritis, right? Maybe your knees complain when you climb the stairs, or your hip feels a little kinky after a long walk, but serious joint pain is for the elderly, you tell yourself. Not so, says Jason Theodosakis, M.D., author of The Arthritis Cure (St. Martin’s Press, 2004). Symptoms of osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, are showing up in men and women in their 40s and 50s, and even younger, he says.
Traditional theory says that osteoarthritis (OA) is caused by the wear and tear that comes with aging: As joint cartilage breaks down over time, bone rubs against bone and causes inflammation and pain. (Sports and related joint injuries can sometimes do the same damage, especially if you’ve spent years playing a high-impact sport, such as soccer.) But a newer theory says that OA can also be caused by chronic inflammation, a state in which inflammation—normally employed by the body to flush out pathogens and help repair tissue—is stuck in the “on” position because of conditions like obesity, hormonal imbalance, or allergies.
If you take the right precautions, says Theodosakis, you can avoid or treat arthritis symptoms at any age, without drugs. Follow these six rules to prevent the onset of arthritis or to treat an existing case:
1. Lose weight
Extra body fat causes greater strain on all joints, particularly the weight-bearing ones in the knees, hips, and ankles. Since these joints absorb concentrated pressure from the excess pounds, they are most vulnerable to cartilage erosion and OA. Excess weight can also produce inflammatory compounds that worsen pain. But research suggests that for every pound you lose, you protect your joints from four to eight pounds of extra pressure.
2. Eat joint-friendly foods
The right diet can help you avoid osteoarthritis or manage its symptoms, says Vijay Vad, M.D., author of Arthritis Rx (Gotham Books, 2006), and sports medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. He recommends an antiinflammatory eating plan, with plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and omega-3 fats from cold-water fish, olive oil, and walnuts. Avoid or eliminate red meat, dairy, polyunsaturated vegetable oils (safflower, sunflower, soy, peanut, and corn), refined grains and sugars (white breads, white flour pastas), and processed foods.
3. Don’t be a couch potato
When exercising, it’s important to strike the right balance. Too much can cause joint strain and injury, which may trigger OA or worsen its symptoms. But being a couch potato weakens muscles and joints (leading to destabilization). The solution? Low-impact, joint-friendly exercises like walking, using a stationary bike, or working out in a heated pool—for 20 to 30 minutes four to five times a week. (Water workouts are easier on joints than land-based activities, and warm water will ease muscle tightness.) Add in stretching or range-ofmotion exercises like yoga and tai chi either daily or every second day. Also, include strengthening exercise every other day, but take two full days off from all activity whenever you feel joint pain.
4. See a physical therapist
Ask your healthcare provider for a referral to a good physical therapist or bodywork practitioner who can help you change entrenched patterns of movement and poor alignment that can cause joint pain. This is critical if you play sports, do manual labor, or have hobbies and jobs that involve repetitive movements. As you practice proper ergonomic form, remember to take frequent breaks and stretch from time to time, whether you have OA or want to avoid it, says Theodosakis.
5. Check vitamin D levels
Deficient levels of the “sunshine vitamin” (your body makes vitamin D from the sun’s rays) have been linked to higher rates of OA, as well as chronic pain and disability in OA patients, says Theodosakis. He suggests getting a simple vitamin D blood test. If you’re deficient, start taking daily vitamin D3 supplements of at least 2,000 IU, and get 15 minutes of direct midday sunlight every day. (The exact amount of sunlight you need varies depending on your skin type, geographic location, and the UV index on a given day, so speak to your doctor for a more precise prescription.)
6. Wear lower heels
Stick to flats with good support for daily wear, and wear heels only occasionally. If you already have arthritis, skip any heels higher than an inch, even with formal attire. Researchers at the University of Virginia have found that walking in heels as low as an inch and a half strained women’s knees and could play a role in developing or advancing OA. “High heels shorten up the calf and can ultimately affect the knee joint’s alignment,” explains Dean Neary, Ph.D., chair of the physical medicine department at Bastyr University in Seattle.
6 DRUG-FREE WAYS TO EASE THE PAIN
Pain from osteoarthritis can be debilitating. These strategies can help ease the suffering.
MEDITATE. Practice slow, deep breathing or visualization exercises to help ease your mind and reduce discomfort, suggests Vijay Vad, M.D., author of Arthritis Rx. You can take a formal mediation class, where you sit and focus for 20 to 30 minutes every day, or you could simply sit still with your eyes closed for five minutes in a calm, quiet place.
TREAT DEPRESSION. If chronic pain keeps you from doing the things you love, you may be at risk for depression, which, in turn can increase your pain. If you experience any symptoms (lack of energy, feelings of hopelessness, weight gain or loss, increased inactivity or isolation), seek help from a mental health professional. Visit the American Psychological Association website at apa.org.
TRY ACUPUNCTURE. Using needles to stimulate specific points on the body, acupuncture may release pain-killing endorphins and inflammation-taming chemicals. Recent research found that patients who received 23 treatments over six months experienced less joint pain than those who did not. Go to the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine website at nccaom.org.
GET A MASSAGE. Massage might help arthritis by increasing blood flow to the joints. In a small trial at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, people with knee OA who got 12 sessions of Swedish massage had less stiffness and improved range of motion with benefits persisting for eight weeks after treatment ended. To find a massage therapist, visit the website of the American Massage Therapy Association at amtamassage.org.
PRACTICE TAI CHI. Tai chi’s slow movements might help restore balance and strengthen muscles without stressing joints. A recent review of 12 studies shows that tai chi can help control OA knee pain. Practice for one hour, twice a week.
DO CONTRAST HYDROTHERAPY. Submerge an achy joint, like a hand or foot, in a basin of hot water for three minutes then switch to cold for 30 seconds. Repeat this hot-cold sequence two more times, says Bastyr University’s Dean Neary, Ph.D. (Use moistened towels for knee or neck pain.) Heat increases blood flow to the joint, while cold moves it away, so alternating the temperature creates the equivalent of a pump that nourishes and lubricates the joint.