Osteoarthritis is inflammation of the joints, and it comes from years of wear and tear. The “Teflon-like” articular cartilage that lines the bones, allowing them to slide smoothly and easily when the joint moves, is gradually lost, ultimately resulting in bone rubbing directly and painfully on bone. The situation can accelerate and be much worse when you severely injure a joint.
So how can you fit this natural trend of aging?
How to fight osteoarthritis at a young age
When you are young, you believe you are bulletproof and can get away with just about anything. I regularly warn my students at Hanover College that although you think you are getting away with something, your body is keeping a careful “orthopedic diary” of events, and there will be a day of reckoning. I have several examples of this chronicled in my own personal orthopedic diary.
And, yes, I have had many days of reckoning.
As a kid in Pittsburgh, I wanted to be a cop — a Pennsylvania State Trooper. I watched police shows on TV and was convinced that I had to be incredibly strong and highly fit, just like the TV cops. So, at the age of 14, I started training in earnest, lifting heavy weights. More than that, each day when I got home from school I would do a half-hour or more of all sorts of pull-ups and push-ups, then eat something and rest until my “real” workout later on. On my “off days” I went to the gym to train for boxing. All in all, my body held up well to years of overworking and constant assaults.
Or so I thought.
That's the first example of what not to do. At times when I overworked heavy bench presses, I felt intense pain in my shoulders. Was I smart enough to back off and allow my shoulders to rest and recover? Of course not. To hide the pain, I would gobble aspirin or ibuprofen and keep going. The result? I suffered damage to my shoulder joints, including a torn (actually a “shredded”) labrum and severe degenerative osteoarthritis in both shoulders that required major surgeries.
And there is my right hip. At 18, I began competing in powerlifting contests, doing heavy squats, deadlifts, and bench presses. At one contest, I was poised for a personal best deadlift that would give me first place in my weight class. During warm-ups, I was excited and feeling particularly good, so I jumped up in weight too fast and did more reps than I should. On the third rep with a heavy weight, I had it just above knee level when something in my right hip popped.
And I mean “popped.”
So, what did I do? Yup, I took a bunch of ibuprofen and tried to keep going. However, in this case, the injury was too much and wouldn’t allow it, and I had to drop out of the contest. In the weeks after, instead of seeking medical advice, I kept taking painkillers and trying to train. The result? Years of agony with hip pain until I recently underwent total right hip replacement surgery.
The point here is that osteoarthritis is not just a concern for oldsters like me. What you do when you are young can largely dictate the severity of osteoarthritis later in life. But then, isn’t that essentially true for most of the health-destroying threats we face in life? What we eat early in life can lead to clogged arteries and a heart attack later on. Smoking early in life can lead to lung cancer.
In both cases, the body keeps functioning as if nothing is wrong until it can no longer get away with it. And don’t forget the orthopedic diary your body is keeping. Around the age of 40 or so, it’s common for the body to pull out the diary and start rebelling against all the assaults heaped upon it.
How to fight osteoarthritis at an older age
My advice for older folks is simple and at first glance seems counter-intuitive. The worst thing you can do with an arthritic joint is to not move it regularly through the range of motion. Joints stiffen when they don’t move. Older folks know this quite well and waking up each morning reminds us. When I get out of bed, the osteoarthritis in many of my joints causes my body to feel stiff and achy. But soon, once I start moving about, the stiffness and pain subside.
But just like youngsters who will ignore my advice, I know tons of older folks who refuse to move regularly, and they certainly never exercise. This means, when they finally have to get up from their easy chair and do something, their movements are tentative, jerky and painful. More than that, not moving weakens the muscles and reduces flexibility, making movements even more challenging, and it increases the risk of falling.
Why does moving help the joints? It lubricates them. Remember the Tin Man from "The Wizard of Oz?" He couldn’t move until his joints were lubricated, and so it is with us humans. Joints are wrapped in a capsule of connective tissue that secretes synovial fluid as a lubricant when the joints are moved. That’s why the initial movements may be stiff and painful, but if you keep moving, lubrication helps the joints move more easily.
Keep moving to help prevent osteoarthritis
Osteoarthritis is a common ailment in our society, and although it is viewed as an old folks disease, the seeds often are planted early in life. For youngsters, don’t underestimate the impact of a joint injury. Seek professional medical guidance, and allow ample time for healing before reengaging. And for those of us who are up in years, keep moving, and the more the better.
Reach Bryant Stamford, a professor of kinesiology and integrative physiology at Hanover College, at [email protected]
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: What is osteoarthritis and tips on how to prevent joint injuries
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