Injury notwithstanding, most of us have enjoyed the smooth operation of the joints that connect bones in our body and allow us to walk, run, bend, and contort in the enormous range of motion that our bodies are capable of. Of course, that was then, and this is now. If you’re a baby boomer, not every movement is as smooth and comfortable as it once was. And, as most adults have just over 230 movable or semi-movable joints in their bodies, osteoarthritic joint pain that develops with age is not easily ignored.
Joints Are Amazing
As an engineering feat, joints are quite remarkable. Joints are nearly frictionless machines lined with a substance called cartilage. Cartilage is said to be about eight times more slippery than ice. It serves as both a shock absorber and a reservoir for the lubricating fluid that helps protect the joint surface during load-bearing and repetitive movement. The problem is that while it is perfectly designed for its job, cartilage has no blood vessels or nerves and a very limited ability to repair itself. This means that damage to joints through injury or aging is not usually reversible.
Joint Damage Affects Many of Us
As a result, more than 27 million of us suffer the irreversible effects of osteoarthritis in America today. Every day, we wake with aching and soreness in our joints or suffer from discomfort after periods of activity or overuse. The joints that are most affected are the load-bearing joints in the feet, knees, hips, and back, and those small joints in the hands that we use almost constantly.
Fat Makes Joint Damage Worse
It is no surprise that if the load-bearing joints are the ones most likely to be affected by osteoarthritis, then carrying extra weight will likely make the problem worse. More surprising is that not just the weight but the fat itself contributes to making the symptoms of osteoarthritis worse. While most of us think of fat as no more than something to be compressed and concealed by Spanx, at a cellular level fat is doing far more than just sitting around making you look pudgy. Fat produces a host of chemicals that are involved in everything from appetite control to inflammation. It is inflammation that is most important if you have osteoarthritis. Fat produces a group of chemicals called adipokines, many of which promote inflammation and some of which specifically target joints.
So not only does being overweight cause more stress and damage to joints that may already be affected by osteoarthritis, but the chemicals released from fat cells also contribute to the destruction of cartilage in joints that are not weight bearing. This is why being overweight can make osteoarthritis in your hands worse.
Keeping Your Joints Healthy
• The best way to keep a joint from degenerating is to lose weight and keep the muscles surrounding the joint strong. If you don’t carry extra weight and the muscles are sharing the load, the stress on the joint is reduced.
• Keeping your muscles strong means working them regularly. This can be difficult if you already feel discomfort from osteoarthritis. The most common exercise to work into your day is walking. It is low impact, so you are not injuring joints while you do it, and walking is useful for the feet, knees, and hips, which are frequently affected by osteoarthritis.
• Other frequently employed exercises for people with osteoarthritis are water aerobics or swimming, yoga or Pilates, and cycling. Even gentle use of weights with bands or weight machines is beneficial. Of course, the last thing you want when you start an exercise program is to make your problem worse, so consult with your doctor and be sure that you maintain proper body mechanics to stay safe as you exercise.
• Getting older does not mean we have to feel older, at least not all at once. If we don’t exercise, the joints can’t stay healthy—and eventually we pay for it. So it is time to make a decision to exercise regularly. You don’t have to be an athlete, just be active.
• You don’t have to be in pain all the time either. There are many treatments available for osteoarthritis besides painkillers. Joint health involves far more than simply taking a Tylenol. Come and talk with us about your options.
Finally, for the sake of your joints, consider losing weight. This is not a simple task, we know. Some people can do it on their own, but most can’t and those people resort bariatric surgery with Dr. Michael Choi in Fort Lauderdale Florida. That is a topic for another article, but suffice it to say that if you know you need help to lose weight, your best bet is to get help from a bariatric specialist.