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If You have Arthritis should You Exercise

That answer is not the same for everyone.  Generally, exercise is beneficial but there may be certain circumstances where you may want to take a pass on going for that run?  To understand how exercising may affect your arthritic joint you first need to understand arthritis.  The term itself is made up of two parts (arth) meaning joint and (itis) meaning inflammation.  So “arthritis” strictly translated refers to an inflamed joint.  It may only involve one joint or it could involve several joints all at the same time.

Generally, anything in the body that is inflamed typically also has an amount of discomfort associated with the process.  Inflammation and pain go hand in hand.  From a treatment standpoint typically if you control or reduce inflammation there is usually also a reduction in pain and discomfort.  That is why your healthcare practitioners will likely recommend you try using anti-inflammatory medications or apply ice around the involved joint.

Causes and Types of Arthritis

There are many different causes and types of arthritis and it is helpful to know why your joint is inflamed in the first place?  For many of us, this answer is easy … we felt pain while participating in a particular sport or executing a specific movement and suffered an injury.  This would be considered “traumatic arthritis”.  Others, typically older individuals, may have their joint discomfort come on gradually over time and an x-ray provided evidence of “arthritic changes”.  This is most often a form of degenerative arthritis known as osteoarthritis.  Typically it involves more joints of the lower body due to weight-bearing and compression.  Over time there are changes that take place within the matrix of the cartilage itself that lead to thinning and fraying of the joint surface.  In joints with advanced changes, this thinning and degeneration can lead to exposed areas of bone and become quite painful and debilitating.  Patients with these changes also often report sensations of grinding within the joint.  When you reach this stage it’s time to consider joint replacement surgery.  Arthritis can also result from systemic causes.  Auto-immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and lupus often involve joints in the body as well as deeper tissues and organs.  Arthritis may also result from an infection inside the joint.  So understanding what type of arthritis you may be experiencing is key to knowing whether exercise is a good or bad idea?

How Does Exercise Help Arthritis? 

Well, having strong muscles, tendons, and ligaments supporting a joint that is in distress is usually quite helpful.  The cartilaginous surfaces inside our joints receive their nutrition from a filtrate of the blood known as synovial fluid.  It is secreted by a special lining inside the joint called the synovium.  Simply by moving it sloshes this fluid around inside the joint distributing it throughout the cartilaginous surfaces for absorption by the specific cells making up the cartilage.  So being active actually helps provide nutrition to our joints.  Here’s the catch … the activity you choose should also not result in significant compression or shear forces inside the joint?  Generally, we recommend avoiding any impact activities – such as running - for lower extremity arthritis involving the hips, knees, ankles and feet.  We would suggest participating more in non-weight-bearing activities such as swimming or cycling where the joints of the lower body are not subject to repeated and prolonged compression by your body weight.  Your rehabilitation team is also likely to evaluate the movement of your involved joints and they may recommend specific stretches to regain any lost motion of your joint/s.  Again, this is important in maintaining proper joint nutrition and function.  In the case of traumatic arthritis or a flare-up of a systemic arthritic condition such as RA, it may be best to just wait things out for a few days before resuming your activities.  Being overly active may actually worsen the problem and create more damage to the joint surfaces.

Talk to your Physiotherapist about the activities you like and if they are safe for you to continue with if you have arthritis.  It is likely a certain amount of activity for your joints is going to be helpful. 

Written by Scott Sherman April 2019  – Physiotherapist/Clinic Director Trico Centre

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