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12 Ways to Protect Your Joints

By Fran Smith, Special to LifescriptPublished July 30, 2011Want to stay limber and pain-free as you get older? Then babying your joints is a must. If you suffer from osteoarthritis, the most common degenerative joint disease, you need to protect yourself. Learn how 12 joint-smart moves help relieve pain and keep you moving. Plus, how much do you know about osteoarthritis? Take our quiz to find out...

We power-walk to keep hearts strong and lift weights to build muscle, but most of us never think about our joints until they hurt.

More than 1 in 5 American adults have a painful degenerative joint disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The most common is osteoarthritis, which develops when cartilage – the smooth tissue that covers and cushions bones where they meet – wears away, leaving bones to grind painfully against one another.

Age and genetics play a role in joint problems, but a sedentary lifestyle also makes a big difference.

"Joints like motion and exercise," says Heinz Hoenecke, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at Scripps Clinic in La Jolla, Calif., and head team physician for the San Diego Padres.

Here are 12 joint-smart moves to remain pain-free even in your golden years.

1. Do lighten your load
Maintaining a healthy weight is the best way to protect joints, especially load-bearing, injury-prone knees and hips. Extra pounds mean extra stress and a higher risk of tears, fracture and osteoarthritis.

“The knee feels about four times your body weight with each step,’’ says Michael Dansinger, M.D., an obesity researcher at Tufts Medical Center and nutrition doctor for "The Biggest Loser."

If you’ve been promising to drop 10 pounds, start today. That’s enough to cut your risk of osteoarthritis by 50%, Dansinger says.

2. Do move!
Staying active is a must. Movement lubricates joints by stimulating the flow of synovial fluid. This gooey substance, which surrounds joints, facilitates mobility – like oil in a car engine – and nourishes cartilage.

Physical activity also strengthens muscles, which reduces stress on bone and cartilage inside the joint.

3. Do strengthen your core
Shaping your midsection means more than great abs; it also helps your joints – all the way to your toes.

“A lot of your power, strength and balance comes from the core," says Patrick McCulloch, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at the Methodist Center for Sports Medicine in Houston and physician for the Astros baseball team and Houston Ballet.

Strong core muscles offer more stability and control over movements. You’re much more likely to plant feet firmly, rotate shoulders properly or flex knees smoothly – and less likely to twist a joint, land hard or make other movements that’ll cause pain.

This is true not only when you’re exercising, but also doing routine tasks, such as hauling yourself out of bed or walking down stairs.

Yoga, Pilates and weight training three times a week all help increase core strength.

4. Do try tai chi
The Chinese martial art of tai chi has special features that help joints. A 2009 Tufts University study found that tai chi reduced pain and increased joint function in people with knee osteoarthritis.

The practice uses gentle, rhythmic movements to improve alignment, strength, coordination and flexibility, and relieve stress. Researchers believe the combination of physical and mental benefits may have potent effects on joint health. 5. Do run smart
Running is great for cardio health, but will racking up miles every year ruin knees? Not necessarily, experts say.

Although low-impact exercise is kinder to joints than the pounding of running, basketball, volleyball or kickboxing, a review of research, published in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association in 2006, found that moderate levels of running don’t increase risk of knee or hip osteoarthritis.

Still, injury is a possibility.

“If running is your thing, figure out a safe way to do it," McCulloch says. His tips:

•If you’re new to the sport, start with short distances – 1-2 miles or 2-3 times a week and increasing distance by 10% a week. If you’re new to exercise, build your muscles first with low-impact activities.

•Run on a trail or soft track, not pavement, to reduce impact.

•Wear shoes designed for running, and replace them before the cushioning wears down (every 250-300 miles). Use running socks – which wick away sweat that can trigger blisters.

•Try cross-training: Switch between running and a gentler sport – such as bicycling or swimming – to avoid joint injuries from overuse.

6. Do fill up on fish
The underlying cause of many joint problems is chronic low-level inflammation caused by microscopic tears in cartilage. Most people don’t feel these injuries, because cartilage has no nerve endings, but over time inflamed tissue weakens and breaks down.

“Prevention is key, and reducing inflammation is central to that,’’ says Tieraona Low Dog, M.D., a director of the University of Arizona’s Program in Integrative Medicine.Omega-3 fatty acids are among nature’s most potent anti-inflammatory compounds. And fatty fish – salmon, herring, lake trout and tuna – are some of the richest sources. Fish are also high in protein, which helps your body form cartilage.

Eat at least two servings a week – 3.5 ounces cooked or 3/4 cup canned.

7. Don’t slouch
Your mother was right when she nagged you to sit up straight. Erect posture keeps weight evenly distributed over your body.

Slouching, on the other hand, pushes your (surprisingly heavy) head forward, increasing stress on joints. It’s a recipe for strained ligaments (the connective tissue in joints).

Try this: Get up from your chair and stand against a wall without adjusting your upper back and shoulders. Are the backs of your shoulders, head and butt touching the wall? If not, straighten up.

8. Don’t sashay in stilettos
High heels look sexy, but many studies show that wearing them too high, too often can hobble you.

High heels shift joint positions at the knee, hip and trunk in ways that hurt the lower back, according to a 2010 Iowa State University study. And as heels get higher, the load on the knees increases.

The conclusion: “The higher the heel, the greater the risk,’’ says Phil Martin, a kinesiology professor at Iowa State.

9. Do lose that heavy handbag
Many women find it convenient to take all their essentials wherever they go. But if you carry too much weight in a purse or tote bag, you’re punishing your finger joints and wrists.
“Don’t use small joints to carry big loads,’’ advises Susan Biali, M.D., author of Live a Life You Love: 7 Steps to a Healthier, Happier, More Passionate You (Beaufort Books).

There are better ways to haul your stuff: A well-designed backpack distributes the load across shoulders and upper back. If that’s not your style, use a shoulder bag, not a purse.

And whatever bag you carry, pack it only with things you really need.

10. Don’t be a weekend warrior
If you spend weekdays sitting at a desk, in the car or on the couch, don’t make up for it by running 15 miles or playing three straight tennis sets on weekends.

Weekend warriors increase the risk of knee and other joint injuries and face more painful problems down the road, according to The Nurse Practitioner, a journal for primary-care clinicians.

A 2003 study published in Canada’s BC Medical Journal found that people with sports injuries are at high risk of re-injury. And a 2007 study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that 10-20 years after tearing a major knee ligament, one of the most common knee injuries, you’d face a 50% chance of having arthritis in that joint.

If you can exercise or play sports only on the weekend, focus on moderate, low-impact activities – and try to get at least 30 minutes of exercise on other days. For more intensive training, spread activities throughout the week.

11. Do avoid processed foods
Potato chips, cookies, commercial baked goods and other highly processed foods are generally made with oils high in destructive omega-6 fatty acids, which promote inflammation, and over time create joint pain.To reduce your consumption, read package labels and avoid products made with corn, vegetable or safflower oils or shortening. Go easy on margarine and mayonnaise too. And make your own salad dressings with olive oil and vinegar. Try this easy All-Purpose Vinaigrette.

12. Don’t push through joint pain
Muscle soreness after exercise is often a sign of hard work, not injury. But with joints, pain always indicates too much stress.

“If a joint hurts or swells, it’s telling you it’s unhappy,” McCulloch says. “You should listen.’’

That’s a warning to stop what you’re doing and let the joint rest.

For more information, visit our new Arthritis Health Center.

Are You Bad to the Bone?
For years, you’ve been the first one on the tennis courts, the weekend hiker, the intrepid gardener on your knees for hours. While all those activities are great for you, they can also be hard on your joints. Find out how much you know about protecting your joints with this osteoarthritis quiz.

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