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Reduce arthritis inflammation with movement

Created date

September 24th, 2013
Couple walking bikes

Several conditions fall under the umbrella term “arthritis:” rheumatoid arthritis, gout, juvenile arthritis, and the most common—osteoarthritis (OA). The word arthritis comes from Latin, meaning inflammation of a joint, and that’s essentially what happens with any type of this disease. “In OA, cartilage breaks down and the bones in the joint can rub together,” explains Betsy Moody, M.D., medical director at Linden Ponds, an Erickson Living community in Hingham, Mass. “This process can cause symptoms such as pain, swelling, stiffness, and less flexibility in the affected joint.”

According to the Arthritis Foundation, about 26 million Americans have been diagnosed with osteoarthritis, and millions more could have the disease. OA may strike in practically any joint in the body but common sites include hands, hips, knees, and spine.

Very few new treatments for an old disease

“OA is one of the most frustrating problems rheumatologists have to deal with,” says Nathan Wei, M.D., board-certified rheumatologist and clinical director of the Arthritis Treatment Center in Frederick, Md. “While we have symptomatic therapies that sometimes help, our approach to treating this disease hasn’t changed much in the last 50 years or so.”

“The main goals of arthritis treatment are to reduce pain while helping you to stay active and independent,” Moody says. “Prescription anti-inflammatory medicines can help, as can other pain relief techniques such as heat or cold packs.”

Over-the-counter topical treatments (so-called counterirritants) are also available that contain substances such as camphor or menthol. They produce hot or cold sensations that temporarily override joint pain.

One thing researchers have learned is that rest is not best. “Exercise helps reduce pain by making muscles stronger, especially the ones that support your joints,” Moody says. “It can also help you lose extra pounds.” Experts say that the loss of one pound means four pounds less pressure on knee joints.

Dealing with exercise-induced pain

Activity may worsen pain for some people, but there are ways to cope with it. “People need to start slowly with an exercise program,” Moody says. “Rest when the pain is at its worst, and then resume activity. Maintaining the right balance of rest and exercise will be different for each person.”

Persistent pain can mean you need a different routine. “We recommend physical therapy to help people find activities that work for them,” Moody says, “and therapists can teach pain-relieving techniques.”

Walking is a good activity for practically everyone. “You need good walking or running shoes first,” Moody advises. “Keep in mind that using a cane or walker to go for a walk does not diminish the value of the exercise.”

Rising popularity of alternative treatments

While many people once considered it hocus pocus, complementary and alternative medicine has been more readily accepted in recent years.

One example is capsaicin cream, an over-the-counter preparation made from chili pepper seeds. It can reduce some of the pain signals sent by nerve cells. “Research shows that capsaicin preparations help about 30% of people who try them,” Moody says.

Several dietary supplements have also hit the market, but their effectiveness is questionable. “There is very little scientific evidence supporting the efficacy of supplements for arthritis treatment,” Moody says. “Glucosamine and chondroitin may alleviate pain—especially knee pain—for some people, but research results have shown that they do not affect the disease process at all. Some dietary supplements can have interactions with other medications, so you need to tell your doctor if you plan to try them.”

According to the National Institutes of Health, another compound called SAM-e (s-adenosylmethionine) has been shown to be as effective as aspirin for arthritis pain, but it takes about a month to work for most people.

Acupuncture yields inconsistent results with regard to pain relief. “Studies reveal that there is little difference in pain relief among people who undergo acupuncture and those who have what’s called a sham procedure, in which the needles are not inserted all the way,” Moody says.

“That’s not to discount the placebo effect. It is very real,” Moody continues, “so if someone has their pain relieved by an alternative medical treatment, there’s probably no harm done as long as they’ve first discussed it with their doctor.”

On the horizon

“The treatments for arthritis that we have available today are, for the most part, palliative until someone needs a joint replacement as a last resort,” Wei says. “But there are some exciting new developments in arthritis treatment research, including using stem cells to regenerate knee cartilage, and scientists are also studying ways to effectively block the sensation of OA pain.”

Try a different exercise option

Walking in water puts less wear and tear on joints than walking on land.

Erickson Living residents can go to their community’s indoor pool to walk or to participate in structured classes such as water aerobics.