by Matt Dancigers
When it comes to joint health, we’ve all heard the phrase “wear and tear.” But what if it’s more like “wear and repair”?
Recent advances in what we know about joint pain and osteoarthritis are flipping conventional wisdom on its head. Turns out we’ve been over-protecting our joints when we should have been encouraging them to move.
The modern accepted definition of osteoarthritis (bone-joint irritation) is joint pain, limited movement and radiographic evidence of surface changes, such as non-smooth edges or bone buildup known as spurs.
Notice that the definition incorporates pain and dysfunction, not just radiographic evidence of changes. And, for many people, it’s just that – surface changes. The joint doesn’t look like it did when you were 12.
Osteoarthritis isn’t caused solely by overuse, or by aging. Early arthritic changes are a bit more biological than mechanical. There may be a genetic component that predisposes people to cartilage cell changes, systemic inflammation, or prior surgeries that seem to link to earlier arthritis. (Think meniscus repair or ACL reconstruction.)
Activity – walking, running and other sports – protects against degradation of joint surfaces, both before and after a diagnosis of osteoarthritis. “Exercise has been proven to be the most effective treatment for early and moderate osteoarthritis of our knee joints,” says Dr. Howard Luks, an orthopedic surgeon.
This year, researchers at Queen Mary University of London produced evidence that mechanical loading – for example, walking, jogging and squats – reduces inflammatory actions that cause osteoarthritis. These motions also replenish joint fluids. The joint itself doesn’t have a blood supply to bring in nutrients and wash away debris, so it must use cyclic loading, or fluctuating stresses and strains, to force nutrients through the joint surfaces and fluids.
Yes, there is a typical progression in arthritic changes in the joint as we age. The longer you live, the more changes will occur; however, much of this is normal and does not necessarily mean more knee or joint pain.
Sedentary behavior, on the other hand, contributes to arthritic changes. A 2017 study in the Journal of Orthopedic & Sports Physical Therapy found that recreational runners had a 3.5 percent risk of hip and knee arthritis, while sedentary individuals had a 10.2 percent risk.
Joints love motion; it’s their purpose and it’s also how they stay healthiest. This is certainly the case with mild and moderate arthritis, although surgery is still often the best approach for severe arthritis that doesn’t respond to physical therapy or modifications to activity.
In short, our joints stay smoother and stronger if we use them. So have confidence that you can usually control your pain and improve your joint health with the right exercises.