Is Joint Preservation Possible?

Like the rest of the body, joints wear out with time. Arthritis was once considered an inevitable part of ageing, with joints simply wearing out as a result of a long and active life. Genetics play a role, but there are ways to slow this natural progression using joint preservation strategies. It is now increasingly realised that osteoarthritis is the result of a complex process with many contributing factors. Reducing or even eliminating these can help reduce the risk of osteoarthritis or delay its onset.

The main ways to protect your joints include:

  1. exercise
  2. keeping a healthy weight
  3. overall health
  4. maintaining strong but supple muscles to stabilise your joints
  5. avoid overuse of your joints
  6. minimise inflammation and treat any injury.

I’ll cover these factors in helping to protect your joints over the next few blogs.

1. Exercise

The number one weapon in your joint preservation arsenal. Physical activity is one of the most important ways to both protect and maintain a healthy and fully functional joint. Our muscles and joints have evolved to keep us active, but overuse, and movements resulting in repetitive stress, jarring and twisting can damage a joint. Since cartilage is a poor healer, an injured joint is far more likely to develop arthritis than an uninjured one.

The earlier in your life this injury occurs, the more likely is your chance of developing arthritis and other degenerative changes in this joint over time. When cartilage is damaged, the smooth gliding surface of the joint is lost. This accelerates the wear and tear on a joint as well as increasing the load brought to bear on the cartilage.

Physical activity does not necessarily mean a formal workout in a gym – gardening, walking, even cleaning the house (sorry!) all count as exercise. Regular exercise also helps to strengthen muscles, which is important for joint stability (as well as cardiovascular health).

Sport-related injuries are a common cause of joint problems developing later in life. Injuries occur not just in elite athletes, but in all grades of players of any age. Injuries range from shoulder damage (a result of recurrent overhead movement, often seen in net ballers or swimmers), knee damage, including anterior cruciate ligament damage, (common in footballers but also caused by cycling and basketball), hip flexor strain, and tennis or golf elbow, just to mention a few. Dances are prone to osteoarthritis of the feet; judo competitors (or judokas) from arthritis of the fingers.

Prevention, as the saying goes, is better than cure. Wear protective gear and appropriate footwear. Warming-up before extensive exercise can help prevent muscle and ligament strain, and strengthening muscle groups will help stabilise joints and minimise any damaging movement. Most importantly, listen to your body: if something hurts, stop! Should an injury occur, remember the basics of first aid: rest the area involved, and minimise swelling through elevation, use of compression, and the application of ice.

Bursitis can also be a result of both overuse and injury, and will cause pain very similar to joint pain. Filled with lubricating fluid, a bursa is a sac which minimises friction between a bone and other tissues. Damage to a joint can also cause bursitis, and initial treatment of the two conditions are similar.

Of course, movement and exercise is more than just sport. In any physical activity, remember to use your larger, stronger joints to lift heavy weights, and avoid twisting with heavy loads. Be careful when carrying unbalanced loads – aim to place the weight uniformly across your body. Repetitive work in a kneeling or crouched position can put heavy loads on your back and knees.

Most of all, be sensible. For example, when running, avoid roads and concrete and instead try to run on dirt. If possible, avoid placing uncontrolled twisting or torque on a joint – such as when jumping off a trampoline after your kids!