We typically don’t think about how our bodies move the way they do. We just know we can sit, stand, move about. That movement is possible thanks to our joints. We tend to take them for granted, especially when we’re young, not noticing them until we feel an ache or pain here or there.
But as we age, so do our joints. The breakdown of joints can lead to inflammation, stiffness, and pain that can be due to arthritis, gout, or inflammation of the synovial membrane from overuse.1 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that of people aged 45 to 64 years, 29.3% ever reported doctor-diagnosed arthritis, but by age 65 or older, 49.6% reported doctor-diagnosed arthritis. Joint pain may make it more difficult to exercise and remain active, which is an important part of healthy aging. The good news is that there are ways to care for your joints as you age.
What Are Joints In The Body?
Our bodies are made to be active, to move. And the way that happens is through our joints. Without them, movement wouldn’t be possible, which is why joint health is so important. So let’s take a look at what joints are.
A joint is the part of the body where two or more bones meet to allow movement. Except for the hyoid bone in the throat, every bone in the body meets up with at least one other bone at a joint. In general, the more movement that’s possible through a joint, the higher the risk of injury as a greater range of movement reduces the strength of the joint.2
Joints are held together and supported by ligaments, which are tough bands of connective tissue and cartilage that prevents friction as the bones move against one another. Muscles are attached to the bones by tendons, which help facilitate movement and prevent damage to muscle tissues. In freely movable joints, the entire joint is enclosed inside a membrane filled with synovial fluid, which helps to provide extra cushioning against impact and reduce friction.2,3
Not all joints function in the same manner, however. So, what are the types of joints? There are three main types of joints described by how much movement they allow. Immovable joints are fixed where no movement occurs such as with the skull. Slightly movable allow for limited movement such as with your vertebrae in the spine. Next is freely movable, also known as synovial joints. These joints have synovial fluid that allows all parts of the joint to smoothly move against each other. An example would be your knees.2,3
The majority of our joints are freely movable and are where we will focus. Of the freely movable joints, there are six types:2,3
Ball and socket joint – the rounded head of one bone sits within the cup of another allowing movement in all directions. Examples include hip or shoulder joint or shoulder joint.
Saddle joint – enables movement back and forth and from side to side, but does not allow rotation. An example is the joint at the base of your thumb.
Hinge joint – this joint is like a door where the two bones open and close in one direction only (along one plane) Examples include your knee and elbow joints.
Condyloid joint – this allows movement, but no rotation. Examples include the jaw or finger joints.
Pivot or rotary joint – characterized by one bone that swivels around the ring formed by another bone. Examples include the first and second vertebrae in your neck and the joints between your ulna and radius bones.
Gliding or plane joint – only permits limited movement and is characterized by smooth surfaces that slip over one another. An example is your wrist joints
All these joints give you the ability to be active, to sit, stand, walk, run, dance, even hug. But, as we age, our joints start to wear out. That’s why it’s important to care for our joints to help prevent many common joint issues.
Common Issues With Joints
It’s a simple fact of life, as we age, our bodies begin to wear down, this includes our joints. As we get older, the connective tissue in our tendons and ligaments get stiffer. Combine that with a loss of muscle strength that happens as we age, and you have increased pressure on the joints. Joint pain can also come from past injuries as well as disease.
The reality is that joint pain is quite common, with knee pain being the most common complaint followed by shoulder pain then hip pain.5 Joint pain, however, can affect any of our joints like fingers, ankles, elbows, and toes. Here are some common causes of joint pain:2,5
Arthritis – inflammation that causes stiffness and pain in the joints
Osteoarthritis – wear and tear disease, which is the most common type of arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis – an autoimmune disorder that happens when your body attacks its own tissues.
Bursitis – inflammation of the bursae, which are fluid-filled sacs that cushion and pad bones
Gout – a type of arthritis caused by too much uric acid in your blood causing sharp crystals to form in one or more of your joints
Infection – within the joint
Tendonitis – inflammation, which causes irritation and swelling of a tendon
Injuries – sprains or strains or fractures
What Helps Your Joints
So what can you do to encourage joint health as you age? There are many things you can do to reduce your risk of joint pain and injuries from warming up before exercising, exercising routinely, eating healthy, and taking vitamins or supplements for joint health.
Six Tips to Help Your Joints:
Exercising routinely. Exercise is important to every area of physical health. Opt for low-impact workouts like the elliptical machine or swimming.6 These exercises methods can give you the same cardio output without the impact on your joints.
Stretching. Flexibility helps you move easier no matter your age. Stretching at least three times a week is beneficial, but it’s important to not stretch before you exercise when your muscles are cold. Before stretching, do a light warm-up to loosen up the joints, ligaments, and tendons.6 You might also enjoy yoga or tai chi. Both forms offer low-impact stretching of muscles while promoting healthy circulation and having a meditative quality great for reducing stress.
Lifting weights. Weight lifting isn’t just for athletes or gym rats. As we age, our bodies begin to lose important muscle mass, which can negatively impact our joints as well as bone density. If you’re not sure where to start, talk with a certified personal trainer at your local gym.6
Icing. After significant exercise, place an ice pack on your joints for up to 20 minutes.6 Ice is a natural pain reliever. It numbs the ache and eases swelling. While you ice, you can do another healthy practice — relax!
Eating right. Eating a healthy diet rich in a variety of heart-healthy foods, like with a Mediterranean diet, not only makes you feel better, reduces your risk for certain diseases, and helps you maintain a healthy weight, it ensures you’re getting important vitamins and minerals to keep your joints healthy and reduce inflammation.
Taking supplements and vitamins. Supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin have been found to reduce pain, increase joint mobility, and decrease the need for pain medication. Omega-3 fatty acids and curcumin, the active ingredient of turmeric, have been found to have anti-inflammatory properties. Green tea contains powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and vitamin D and Ubiquinol help maintain bone and joint health.7
With a few simple steps, you can help maintain your joint health while you age gracefully. For more tips on healthy aging, take a look at our Health Tips for your 50s or How to Stay Healthy in Your 40s.