The British writer and wit George Orwell once said, “At 50, everyone has the face he deserves.” That’s probably true. But no one deserves the pain and hassle of deteriorating joints. Thankfully, it is a process that can be – to some extent – kept in check.
As we age, our bodies begin to break down, and joints are among some of the first things to go. While the majority of deaths are attributed to cardiac problems, a good chunk of all doctor visits are due to musculoskeletal issues, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. In fact, musculoskeletal complaints are one of the most common reason patients in the U.S. visit emergency rooms and their primary care physicians, and such issues could account for 10 percent to nearly 30 percent of all primary care doctor visits1.These issues tend to be termed "osteoarthritis." A related condition is osteoporosis, which affects both men and women, although it affects women to a much greater degree.
What Are Joints?
First of all, let’s take a look at what joints are. While there are several types of joints, the ones that move are called “synovial joints.” We will focus on those. These include:
- Ball and socket joints like the ones in your hips and shoulder.
- Gliding joints in your wrists and ankles, which are aided by ligaments.
- Hinge joints in your knees and elbows.
- A pivot joint in your neck.
- Ellipsoidal and saddle joints in your fingers.
All these joints allow the body to bend, turn, rock, jump, swing, reach, and so on. No matter which action verb you choose, your joints are integral to your body's ability to do it. Deserving of special mention here is cartilage, which is dense and fibrous tissue that connects bones and joints, softens the blows of friction that occurs during movement and prevents bone-on-bone abrasion.
What Can Go Wrong?
Aging takes a toll on joints, just as age takes a toll on old houses and cars. Wear and tear can erode your cartilage, and loss of muscle mass removes the muscles that can act essentially as shock absorbers for that cartilage. Excess body weight takes its toll, too. As you move around, all that excess weight can speed up the process of wearing down your cartilage and joints.
Athletes and ex-athletes need to pay attention to previous injuries. When we’re young, we can sometimes compensate for injuries by using another part of our bodies or relying more on other muscles. But the original injury doesn’t just go away, and putting extra compensatory strain on another part of the body can create its own problems. Ask any ex-football player. Long-term brain injuries to football players have been the subject of intense scrutiny of late, but debilitating long-term injuries to the knees, shoulders, fingers and other joints are usually much more common and severe. The Washington Post surveyed retired NFL players and found that 90 percent suffered from aches and pains on a daily basis, and 91 percent of ex-NFL players chalked up those issues to their football careers.
What You Can Do to Help Your Joints
Now, what can we do to prevent (or at least stall) the effects of aging on our joints and the onset of osteoporosis and osteoarthritis?
Aerobic exercise. Exercise is, of course, crucial to every area of physical health. For joints, exercise should be varied. A marathon runner is wearing and tearing the cartilage in his knees to a troublesome degree. A good strategy to act against that kind of damage is to take up swimming or a low-impact elliptical machine. These exercises methods can give you the same cardio output without affecting your knees and ankles.
Stretching. Stretching is essential. Young athletes who stretch age much better than those who use their youthful vigor and freedom from pain to just go out and play. The sooner a person gets into stretching, the better off he or she is. It is never too late to take up yoga or tai chi, two ancient exercise regimens that have gained serious traction in the American health community in recent years. Both forms offer low-impact stretching of muscles and joints that reduce the risk of impact-associated injury. They also promote healthy and robust circulation and have a meditative quality that is terrific for reducing stress. For anyone who fears a religious angle to these eastern practices, rest assured: These practices have been fully integrated into Western ideas and, in most cases, carry no religious prescription.
Weights. Weights are not just for beefed-up professional athletes or serious lifters. Lifting a 2-pound dictionary can be of great benefit to your muscles and, therefore, your joints. Do you have an able-bodied child living at home? It would make sense to have him take the trash can out to the curb, but if you do it, your muscles will begin to build some mass, and that will prime you for great joint health now and later in life.
If you feel you are weak or not the weight-lifting type, run an experiment: Try lifting 2 pounds at lunch every day. You’ll be surprised how fast your muscles respond. Soon, you’ll be lifting 5 pounds then 10 pounds and enjoying the noticeable accomplishment! You might also enjoy a little tone on your arms.
Ice. After significant exercise—from walking to weight lifting—place a plastic bag of ice on your joints for 10 minutes. Ice will help move fluids generated during exercise to the lymphatic system, which can properly dispose of it. While you ice, you can do another healthy practice, namely, relax. You can celebrate your accomplishment with a well-deserved break while the ice does its purifying work.2
Eating Right. Now that you’ve exercised, lifted some weights, and practiced some calm relaxation, it’s time to eat. Certain foods help your joints. Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish are terrific for joints. They reduce the inflammation that is a byproduct of exercise and provide Vitamin D, which also helps reduce inflammation. For women who are menopausal or past menopause, osteoporosis is also a very real concern. Calcium, Vitamin D, supplemental fish oil and Ubiquinol are great strategies for bone and joint health.
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Musculoskeletal education in medical schools: Are we making the cut? http://www.aaos.org/news/bulletin/marapr07/reimbursement2.asp
- The Sports Injury Doctor. Cryotherapy - ice therapy - why you should apply ice for just 10 minutes. http://www.sportsinjurybulletin.com/archive/1066-cryotherapy.htm#