If you’re experiencing joint pain, you may wonder—is it arthritis? How do I improve my joint health to avoid permanent joint damage and conditions like arthritis?
Despite the popular belief, arthritis isn’t a specific disease, nor is it a condition that only impacts the joints of older adults. Instead, arthritis is a generic term for inflammation of any joint pain, injury, or disease. According to the Arthritis Foundation, more than 100 types of arthritis and related conditions exist. Joint damage and pain can affect anyone, and often the underlying cause is injury or disease. For example, a young basketball player in fantastic physical condition could experience a fall on the court and a traumatic blow to their elbow, leading to arthritis.
While there’s no cure for arthritis, there are many ways to prevent permanent joint damage, improve joint health, and reduce the likelihood of pain and discomfort. Let’s explore proactive ways to improve joint health.
What Causes Permanent Joint Damage?
It’s hard to address joint pain (and start improving joint health) without understanding the root cause. But pinpointing the cause of arthritis is tricky, especially because it can occur in many different forms.
For example, osteoarthritis happens when cartilage tissue that cushions the joint and absorbs friction wears away through overuse. Cartilage is a vital component of your joints that serves as a shock absorber for your bones. Without cartilage, you experience significant pain, and your mobility is likely limited.
Another form of arthritis is rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that attacks and degrades joint tissue. Rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, is linked to genetic and environmental risk factors, making it unpreventable. Still, there are ways of improving joint health to stave off the inflammation and pain associated with conditions like RA. Smoking, stress, and alcohol use can exacerbate RA pain and hasten symptoms.
As you can see, there is a wide range of arthritis causes and types. Athletes and less-active healthy adults can mitigate the most common causes of joint issues by focusing on improving joint health. One prime culprit of joint strains, bursitis, cartilage deterioration, and other joint-related conditions is inflammation. Address the inflammation, and you often reduce the likelihood of permanent joint damage.
Proactive Measures for Improving Joint Health
An inflamed joint is a painful joint. To prevent arthritis flair-ups and permanent joint damage, reduce inflammation and keep the joint healthy. It sounds simple, but what does joint health really entail?
1. Movement and Exercise
First and foremost, movement and regular exercise are vital in preventing permanent joint damage. It may sound counterintuitive, as most athletes have heard, “you’ll ruin your knees” at some point in their sports career. But like the rest of your body, joints need to be strong. You build strength and improve joint health by working out.
It’s a common misconception that you should avoid exercise to “protect” your joints. If your favorite workout is high impact—like running—and you’re not experiencing pain, there’s really no reason to stop. On the other hand, if you’re healing from an injury or dealing with a joint-related disease, then yes, it may be best to choose low-impact exercises like swimming. Exercise might not always be comfortable, but it shouldn’t be extremely painful. If you’re concerned about your joint health, talk to an orthopedic expert to guide you on ways to prevent permanent joint injury.
2. Variety in Your Workout Regimen
To protect your joints, you may want to cross-train and modify your workouts. It’s important that you don’t focus on just one part of the body or one particular joint but rather build all muscles, especially your core. Mixing up your movement will ensure the muscles surrounding and protecting your joints stay strong. Add flexibility training like yoga and strength training like weightlifting to your routine to build up those under-used areas.
After your workouts, use ice to prevent swelling and pain. You can also foam roll or stretch if it helps your muscles feel better. It’s crucial that you always use the right shoes and gear for your sport or activity. Many injuries that result in permanent joint damage could have been prevented with the proper protective equipment.
3. Healthy Diet & Nutrition
Joint supplements like glucosamine and chondroitin are very popular. However, the research is still out on their effectiveness, especially in preventing joint pain. Other measures and natural remedies, like tart cherry juice or antioxidants, are fine to try, but only use them to enhance your approach to joint health (rather than the sole method of preventing joint pain).
Your diet plays a role in inflammation throughout the body. If you’re concerned about improving joint health, keep alcohol consumption in moderation. It’s also a good idea to avoid high sodium, which can cause swelling. Foods like sugar, processed, and fried treats are also potentially linked to inflammation. While some studies are inconclusive, you may want to avoid such foods to prevent joint pain. A balanced diet is good for your body’s overall health in many ways, including joint health.
If you’re planning to run a marathon, or even if you’re taking on a physically demanding non-sports activity, you can take medications like over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen sodium as a preventative measure. You can also take them after-the-fact, to help alleviate discomfort. However, be sure only to take the recommended dosage and keep your use in moderation, as NSAIDs are associated with an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and cardiovascular events. Overuse of NSAIDs can also lead to problems with the kidneys and liver.
When to See a Doctor for Joint Pain
Occasional joint discomfort can be part of an active lifestyle. You may wake up with an ache or pain here and there, especially if you’ve recently engaged in strenuous activity. But if you’re suffering from consistent joint pain, it’s time to see an orthopedic specialist.
Likewise, if you fall on your not-so-funny bone or twist your ankle, you should address the injury immediately. Don’t push through the pain if you notice significant swelling, bruising, or sharp pain after a fall or misstep. The earlier you get care for an injury, the better the long-term outcome. When it comes to preventing permanent joint damage, early treatment is essential.
Even outside of trauma or injury, you should address acute pain impacting your mobility immediately. While arthritis isn’t always preventable, an effort to improve joint health will help you stay mobile and active with minimal pain later in life. So, take good care of your healthy joints now, and they’ll return the favor. Are you feeling joint discomfort? Reach out today to schedule with a specialist!