Do you have stiff joints with the first few steps out of bed in the morning? Or, perhaps, after watching a movie, you stand up and find your low back doesn’t want to straighten up? Often, X-Ray imaging will diagnose these achy, stiff joints with Osteoarthritis (OA). The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states 3.2 million Americans are affected by OA.
The CDC describes OA as a disease where “cartilage begins to break down and the underlying bone begins to change”. Cartilage is a malleable, pliable soft tissue, provided for shock absorption, lubrication, and a protective barrier to the underlying bone. When a joint is used to its full capacity—loading, bending, compressing, and shock absorbing—it may result in changes to the cartilage. Therefore, when cartilage begins to show signs of degeneration, underlying bone may be at the mercy of the cartilage health and result in the formation of OA.
The easiest way to think about the degeneration phenomenon that occurs in a joint is comparing it to a door hinge. A brand-new door with pristine hinges and a well-made door frame will provide easy opening and closing. Consider this to be like an adolescent knee.
However, as you use this door over time, the frame settles and perhaps the hinges get a little rusty. You notice you’re having to add an extra push to get the door to close, or you have to lift the door to get it to latch. Now consider this door to be like an osteoarthritic knee. The door still functions and can be greased or mended around the hinges to improve its use, similar to the knee.
This brings up a good question about what we can do to keep our joints healthy and our bodies’ “hinges” moving smoothly. The answer: mobility, mobility, mobility. Remember our comparison of how a joint is like a door hinge. Think about what would likely happen if you were to leave the door shut for several years. When you try to open it, it would be much more difficult than if you were using it daily. Maybe you wouldn’t remember the trick of only turning the handle 45 degrees to open it, but keeping a joint moving will allow for preserved mobility.
Performing low-impact exercises like swimming, leg lifts, and stretches will allow for improved health of a joint. Listening to your body’s messages is recommended. For example, if you’ve been standing for several hours, taking a ten-minute sit break when you start to feel aches can help. Taking a sit break decompresses the joints and allows for cartilage to re-energize, which can preserve the cartilage health for longer. Remember, making regular exercise part of your routine can improve joint health. A study by Fransen et al. found that participants that performed regular exercise saw lower occurrences of osteoarthritic knee pain.
Self-management of OA is viable. However, navigating this road can get difficult and confusing. All our Physical Therapists at Texas Physical Therapy Specialists take pride in having a passion for helping patients by educating them on how to attain their unique goals and return to a high-quality life. We welcome and encourage you to consult with us if we can help you achieve these goals.