Arthritis can be either be due to age or previous injury and called osteoarthritis (OA) or inflammatory in nature and called rheumatoid arthritis (RA). They are very different conditions, but practical and simple tips can help manage both.
OA: is a condition experienced by many with both good days and bad. There is no cure and helps if you understand that it is part of the natural ageing process, like grey hair and wrinkles on the inside! Some people have more symptoms than others.
RA: is a condition that is caused by your body’s immune system being unable to control inflammation and can affect joints as well as other parts of the body.
Whether you have osteoarthritis or RA, regular gentle exercise can improve the range of movement in a joint and ease stiffness. Movement puts changing pressures through the cartilage and the joint, which helps the circulation and the synovial fluid to ‘oil’ the joint. In RA this may not be true if the cartilage is severely damaged or eroded. Everyone has heard the ‘no pain no gain theory’, but this will do little to encourage you to exercise and step onto the path to personal fitness. Some people do nothing, or fear that exercise will make them feel worse; others do too much and feel terrible. Your personality and experience of exercise will influence how you react. Exercise doesn’t have to hurt, and physical pain can be avoided if you exercise within your ability. However, it can be hard at first to change your habits and become disciplined with a commitment to exercise! You should expect muscular aches after exercise, but pain can and should be avoided.
- Know your limitations and pace yourself. This will prevent a ‘boom or bust’ cycle and keep you active on good days and bad. Little and often is best in all activities.
- Exercise is key to keep your muscles strong and flexible to support and protect your joints.
- Find an exercise you enjoy and make it part of your lifestyle. Exercise should be like cleaning your teeth, performed daily and regarded as a form of maintenance for muscle health.
- Use ice packs on hot swollen joints. 10 minutes at regular intervals when in pain or an inflammatory flare up. Before and after exercise can also ease symptoms.
- Use heat packs for aching joints that are not swollen or in a ‘flare up’.
Paula Coates is a Chartered Physiotherapist who works as Clinical lead and Audit and triage lead within the NHS. She treats both NHS and private patients with complex long term conditions and sports and spinal injuries. She has also published books on the long term management of back pain, diabetes and running injuries. Her book Exercise your way to health: Arthritis has been chosen for the Reading Well for long term conditions scheme.