Questions and Answers about Arthritis and Exercise
What Is Arthritis?
There are over 100 forms of arthritis and other rheumatic diseases. These diseases may cause pain, stiffness, and swelling in joints and other supporting structures of the body such as muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones. Some forms can also affect other parts of the body, including various internal organs.
Many people use the word "arthritis" to refer to all rheumatic diseases. However, the word literally means joint inflammation; that is, swelling, redness, heat, and pain caused by tissue injury or disease in the joint. The many different kinds of arthritis comprise just a portion of the rheumatic diseases. Some rheumatic diseases are described as connective tissue diseases because they affect the body's connective tissue--the supporting framework of the body and its internal organs. Others are known as autoimmune diseases because they are caused by a problem in which the immune system harms the body's own healthy tissues. Examples of some rheumatic diseases are:
In this booklet, the term arthritis will be used as a general term to refer to arthritis and other rheumatic diseases.
Should People With Arthritis Exercise?
Yes. Studies have shown that exercise helps people with arthritis in many ways. Exercise reduces joint pain and stiffness and increases flexibility, muscle strength, cardiac fitness, and endurance. It also helps with weight reduction and contributes to an improved sense of well-being.
How Does Exercise Fit Into a Treatment Plan for People With Arthritis?
Exercise is one part of a comprehensive arthritis treatment plan. Treatment plans also may include rest and relaxation, proper diet, medication, and instruction about proper use of joints and ways to conserve energy (that is, not waste motion) as well as the use of pain relief methods.
What Types of Exercise Are Most Suitable for Someone With Arthritis?
Three types of exercise are best for people with arthritis:
Most health clubs and community centers offer exercise programs for people with physical limitations.
How Does a Person With Arthritis Start an Exercise Program?
People with arthritis should discuss exercise options with their doctors and other health care providers. Most doctors recommend exercise for their patients. Many people with arthritis begin with easy, range-of-motion exercises and low-impact aerobics. People with arthritis can participate in a variety of, but not all, sports and exercise programs. The doctor will know which, if any, sports are off-limits.
The doctor may have suggestions about how to get started or may refer the patient to a physical therapist. It is best to find a physical therapist who has experience working with people who have arthritis. The therapist will design an appropriate home exercise program and teach clients about pain-relief methods, proper body mechanics (placement of the body for a given task, such as lifting a heavy box), joint protection, and conserving energy.
What Are Some Pain Relief Methods for People With Arthritis?
There are known methods to help stop pain for short periods of time. This temporary relief can make it easier for people who have arthritis to exercise. The doctor or physical therapist can suggest a method that is best for each patient. The following methods have worked for many people:
How Often Should People With Arthritis Exercise?
What Type of Strengthening Program Is Best?
This varies depending on personal preference, the type of arthritis involved, and how active the inflammation is. Strengthening one's muscles can help take the burden off painful joints. Strength training can be done with small free weights, exercise machines, isometrics, elastic bands, and resistive water exercises. Correct positioning is critical, because if done incorrectly, strengthening exercises can cause muscle tears, more pain, and more joint swelling.
Are There Different Exercises for People With Different Types of Arthritis?
There are many types of arthritis. Experienced doctors, physical therapists, and occupational therapists can recommend exercises that are particularly helpful for a specific type of arthritis. Doctors and therapists also know specific exercises for particularly painful joints. There may be exercises that are off-limits for people with a particular type of arthritis or when joints are swollen and inflamed. People with arthritis should discuss their exercise plans with a doctor. Doctors who treat people with arthritis include rheumatologists, orthopaedic surgeons, general practitioners, family doctors, internists, and rehabilitation specialists (physiatrists).
How Much Exercise Is Too Much?
Most experts agree that if exercise causes pain that lasts for more than 1 hour, it is too strenuous. People with arthritis should work with their physical therapist or doctor to adjust their exercise program when they notice any of the following signs of strenuous exercise:
Should Someone With Rheumatoid Arthritis Continue To Exercise During a General Flare? How About During a Local Joint Flare?
It is appropriate to put joints gently through their full range of motion once a day, with periods of rest, during acute systemic flares or local joint flares. Patients can talk to their doctor about how much rest is best during general or joint flares.
Are Researchers Studying Arthritis and Exercise?
Researchers are looking at the effects of exercise and sports on the development of musculoskeletal disabilities, including arthritis. They have found that people who do moderate, regular running have low, if any, risk of developing osteoarthritis. However, studies show that people who participate in sports with high-intensity, direct joint impact are at risk for the disease. Examples are football and soccer. Sports involving repeated joint impact and twisting (such as baseball and soccer) also increase osteoarthritis risk. Early diagnosis and effective treatment of sports injuries and complete rehabilitation should decrease the risk of osteoarthritis from these injuries.
Researchers also are looking at the effects of muscle strength on the development of osteoarthritis. Studies show, for example, that strengthening the quadriceps muscles can reduce knee pain and disability associated with osteoarthritis. One study shows that a relatively small increase in strength (20-25 percent) can lead to a 20-30 percent decrease in the chance of developing knee osteoarthritis. Other researchers continue to look for and find benefits from exercise to patients with rheumatoid arthritis, spondyloarthropathies, systemic lupus erythematosus, and fibromyalgia. They are also studying the benefits of short- and long-term exercise in older populations.
This article has informational purpose and isn't a substitute for professional advice.
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