Monday Medical: Exercise helps improve arthritis

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Many people think arthritis only affects older adults. This is a common myth about the condition, which includes many diseases affecting the joints and surrounding tissues.

While osteoarthritis, the most common type, tends to happen in older adults, two-thirds of people with arthritis are younger than 65 and about one in 250 children has a form of arthritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Arthritis — which also includes conditions such as gout, lupus and fibromyalgia — is the leading cause of disability in the United States, but it might not have to be.

Some people with arthritis mistakenly think nothing can be done to help them. While the causes of arthritis are unknown, researchers have identified risk factors that can be changed to help prevent development of osteoarthritis and also help reduce pain and stiffness.

Great strides also have been made in developing medications to slow joint damage and relieve pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis.

Early diagnosis is the key to successfully managing arthritis. Depending on the type of arthritis, a team of medical professionals can advise treatment that could include medication, lifestyle changes, alternative therapies and/or surgery, suited to each individual.

Osteoarthritis involves deterioration of the joint’s cartilage or the cushion between bones. It often affects knees, hips, fingers, neck and the lower back. Although there can be some inflammation, it is considered a non-inflammatory form of arthritis. Signs or symptoms include joint pain, stiffness or difficulty moving a joint.

A person with osteoarthritis eventually might have difficulty walking or conducting daily activities, though some people might never experience more than moderate, intermittent pain.

Rheumatoid arthritis involves inflammation of the joint’s lining caused by abnormal immune system activity, which essentially attacks healthy tissue.

The condition usually begins in the smaller joints of the fingers, hands and wrists. Symptoms include pain, stiffness, redness and swelling around the joints and fatigue. If untreated, rheumatoid arthritis eventually can erode bone, cartilage, tendons and ligaments, causing deformity and disability.

One of the best things a person can do to prevent or manage arthritis is to maintain a healthy weight and prevent excess pressure on joints. Weight loss has been found to significantly reduce a person’s risk of developing osteoarthritis.

A recent study at the Mayo Clinic found a direct correlation between excess weight and the severity of fibromyalgia symptoms.

An important part of losing or maintaining a healthy weight is exercise, but that’s not the only benefit of physical activity for people with arthritis. Regular, moderate exercise has been found to strengthen muscles and bones, increasing flexibility and relieving stiffness and pain that otherwise may impede daily activities.

Exercise also lessens fatigue, improves sleep and helps alleviate depression and anxiety associated with chronic conditions.

It’s important to choose an exercise routine that is gentle on the joints. Helpful activities include walking, swimming, cycling, yoga and golf, which can be adapted to prevent strain on joints.

The Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association’s Aging Well program offers Arthritis Foundation Exercise, Tai Chi for Health and other fitness classes that help individuals with arthritis and other conditions safely build strength, flexibility and stamina.

Aging Well also offers Healthier Living, a workshop that teaches people coping with health challenges how to integrate exercise, healthy eating and other positive changes into their lives. A new workshop begins June 4 at the VNA’s Steamboat office.

For more information about Healthier Living or Aging Well exercise, call 970-871-7676.

This article includes information from the Arthritis Foundation, www.arthritis.org.

Tamera Manzanares is a community outreach specialist for the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association.

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