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Taking care of arthritic joints

Older adults doing tai chi

Tips for coping with osteoarthritis and maintaining your independence.

If painful joints due to osteoarthritis (OA) are controlling your life, here's a reminder: It's possible to live a more active, independent life with less joint pain. But you'll have to do your part.

First, talk to your doctor. He or she can help you develop a treatment plan that addresses your specific needs.

Your plan could include some of these self-help remedies recommended by experts at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, the American Physical Therapy Association and the Arthritis Foundation.

Stay active. Regular physical activity can help improve muscle strength and cardiovascular fitness, control weight, reduce joint stiffness and increase flexibility. In older adults, exercise can help improve posture and balance, thereby reducing the risk of falls.

A well-rounded exercise program includes weightlifting or another form of resistance training; walking or low-impact exercises, such as water aerobics; and range-of-motion exercises. However, the type of exercise you should do depends on the joints involved and what your doctor or physical therapist recommends.

Listen to your body. Follow the Two-Hour Pain Rule recommended by the Arthritis Foundation: If you have more joint pain two hours after you exercise than you did before, cut back a little and alternate exercises to reduce stress on the affected joints.

Rest your joints if they become extremely painful or swollen. But avoid long periods of inactivity that will cause muscle weakness and more joint instability.

Watch your weight. No specific diet is recommended for people with arthritis. However, if you need to lose weight, a healthy diet—along with exercise—will help. For example, losing just five pounds would take 20 pounds of stress off your knees, according to the foundation.

Rest easy. To improve your sleep, exercise early in the day, avoid caffeine and alcohol at night, and take a warm, relaxing bath at bedtime. Ask your doctor about adjusting the time you take medicines to provide more pain relief at night, and about sleeping positions that are best for your joints.

Hook up with assistive devices. Use self-help devices, such as jar openers, reach extenders, zipper pulls and buttoning aids that put less stress on affected joints. An occupational or physical therapist can suggest other devices that might help.

Support your joints. Use canes, crutches or walkers if you need them. If you have OA of the knee, try wedged insoles or cushioned shoes to redistribute your weight and reduce joint stress. Braces and splints also provide joint support.

Look for alternative pain relief. Apply heat using warm towels or hot packs, or take a warm bath or shower to reduce pain and stiffness. Cold packs can numb the sore area. Ask your doctor which method is best for you.

More ideas: Consider massage therapy with a therapist experienced in treating people with arthritis. Ask your doctor about transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), a device that blocks pain messages to the brain.

Practice good posture. Stand straight to protect the joints in your neck, back, hips and knees. Change positions regularly (whatever you're doing) to decrease stiffness in muscles and joints.

Use the right joints for the job. When lifting or carrying, use your largest and strongest joints and muscles to avoid strain on smaller joints.

Prepare for activity. Start new activities slowly and safely until you know how your body will react to them. This will reduce the chance of injury.

Ask for help. Don't try to do a job that is too big for you to handle. Get another pair of hands to help out.

For more information, visit the Arthritis health topic center.

Reviewed 8/14/2023

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