Benefits of Exercise for those with Osteoarthritis
Osteoarthritis (OA) is a degenerative condition of the joints in your body, in which the cartilage that protects the surface of your bone begins to wear down. This condition is very common, and affects between 10-15% of people over the age of 60. The most common joints to experience OA include the knee, hands, and hips. It can cause pain, stiffness and inflammation, and can make it harder to move, walk and do the things you love to do. This degenerative process is irreversible, though there are many ways to manage symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.
As a physical therapist, I evaluate and treat many patients who experience OA everyday. Oftentimes, the patients experiencing the symptoms of OA are limited in their function and mobility and often have restricted their activities over time to avoid discomfort. As you become more sedentary in your lifestyle and avoid exercise, you begin to lose muscle mass, flexibility and balance, and may require an assistive device like a cane or a walker to move around more safely and efficiently. My biggest piece of advice for those suffering from the symptoms of OA is to keep moving!
It may seem counterintuitive to exercise a deteriorating joint, however it is important to note that with regular exercise, your joints become easier to move and less painful as you are keeping them lubricated by the synovial fluid within the joint. Your physical therapist can offer an exercise treatment plan that will build strength in the muscles to help support your joints, maximize flexibility and normal range of motion to reduce stiffness in painful joints, and to improve upon your balance, to avoid risk of falls and further injury.
There are ways to exercise effectively to manage your pain, even during an OA flare up. It is recommended that you get at least 30-minutes a day of light to moderate exercise, 5 days a week. Beneficial exercises for managing your OA can include walking, light cycling and swimming. Yoga and Tai Chi can be great options for exercise to incorporate gentle stretching and deep breathing techniques to help manage the pain. Most commonly I recommended low-impact type exercises so as not to further aggravate joint pain. I also recommend that you start slow! If you have been sedentary for some time, it may be best to start with multiple, shorter sessions of light exercise a day so as not to experience worsening of pain and inflammation.
If and when the pain and symptoms become too severe, you should have a discussion with your orthopedic specialist about whether you are a candidate for treatments such as injections or eventually a joint replacement. Even if you are experiencing advanced OA and are preparing for an upcoming joint replacement, it can be beneficial to be evaluated by a physical therapist prior to surgery. Your therapist can give you exercises to maximize your aerobic capacity, range of motion and strength prior to surgery to make your post-operative recovery easier. Your therapist can prepare you for what to expect after surgery, which exercises will be most important after surgery, what equipment you will need and how to safely get around your home in the first several weeks post-op.