by Ronald M. Lawrence, M.D., Ph.D., and Martin Zucker
Many people think of arthritis as a nuisance that causes some pain and discomfort but that can usually be eliminated with a pill or joint replacement and puts you right back on track again. You'd be misguided if you think that way.
During fifty years as a pain specialist, and having treated more than 150,000 patients, I have seen arthritis ruin many lives. The reality is that no condition impairs the quality of life as we age and to a greater extent than does arthritis. It erodes basic functions and prevents you from taking part in elementary and cherished activities, leads to inactivity and other health problems, and can rob you of longevity as well.
Unfortunately, the solutions we in the medical profession offer are much less than ideal and often the cause of additional problems. For instance, when individuals have to rely continually on painkillers, they often put themselves at risk for developing serious side effects.
Over the years I have treated thousands of patients with osteoarthritis, the aging human's most common affliction. Osteoarthritis involves deterioration of joint cartilage, the rubbery tissue at the ends of bones that allows for smooth movement and shock-absorption. When cartilage erodes, due to a variety of risk factors, the frequent result is pain, loss of motion, and in many cases even disability and dependence on others.
Health officials predict an epidemic of osteoarthritis within two decades as the Baby Boomer generation ages. "As the leading edge of the baby boom generation enters the prime years for arthritis," the Arthritis Foundation has warned, "a quantum leap will take place as the number of people affected surges and the impact on individuals and the nation's health grows dramatically."
With an anxious eye on a medical crisis ahead, health officials have created a National Arthritis Action Plan with a goal of delaying the onset of pain and disability among individuals by ten years and extending a more vigorous, vital life. Research indicates this is possible.
On a personal level I know this is possible from my pain practice. I have seen many patients stay free of arthritic symptoms well into their seventies and eighties by following a good lifestyle. In other cases, I have been able to help arthritic patients substantially minimize pain or prevent it from getting worse.
My positive experience with patients over the years inspired me to write "Preventing Arthritis: A Holistic Approach to Life Without Pain ". This is the first major book that offers a comprehensive program to minimize the chances of developing painful, debilitating arthritis. My purpose was to warn people not to take arthritis lightly and to offer ideas for preventing it. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, the old saying goes, but with arthritis, there is no cure. Once you've got it, you've got it, and have to deal with it. That makes every ounce of prevention worth a ton. Preventing Arthritis is my attempt to help people meet and even exceed the declared goal of the National Arthritis Action Plan.
There is much you can do to protect and fortify yourself. Many of the physiological changes leading to osteoarthritis are not clearly understood yet by medical science. So prevention is an effort in which you take aim at the risk factors that contribute to joint damage. In this book, I will arm readers with the guidelines to do so, the very same advice I share with my patients. The practical information includes the following points:
- Reduce repetitive strain on muscles and joints. Be alert for any chronic aches and strains caused by work, hobby, or recreation-related activities. Don't ignore the signs and wait for them to worsen. If you suspect that your job causes symptoms, for instance, you may need to rotate your task or modify your office chair or workstation, or even find an alternative activity. Repetitive strain can create microtrauma to joints and adjacent soft tissue, and lead to osteoarthritis in later years. Squatting, heavy physical labor, occupational knee bending, and a history of regular sports participation that can cause abnormal wear and tear of the knee joints are risk factors for knee arthritis. Repetitive or forceful motions performed with the hands can contribute to osteoarthritis. And even long hours at the computer can strain and perhaps prematurely age your hands. At the first sign of chronic strain or pain, see a physician.
- Exercise (but don't abuse) your joints. A sedentary lifestyle makes for weak muscles and increases the odds of developing arthritis (and other health problems). Regular exercise is essential. It creates stronger and more flexible joints. Exercise doesn't have to be strenuous. Just regular. Consider a cross-training program that includes a variety of exercises and light weight training. The use of weights builds denser bones and strengthens the muscles, ligaments, and tendons associated with joints.
- Feed your joints right. Overweight and obese individuals are at greater risk for osteoarthritis, particularly in the weight-bearing joints. Losing weight cuts the risk. Improving the diet is always a tough challenge in our time-strapped society. However, the more you can maximize your intake of whole foods and minimize the refined, packaged foods, the better off you and your joints will be. In "Preventing Arthritis ", I offer readers a simple dietary plan that has worked for many of my patients over the years. The information includes some timeless tips on how to eat (not just what to eat) that can result in additional weight loss.
- Supplement your joints. Poor food choices, environmental chemicals, excess stress, and the use of alcohol, oral contraceptives, and medication contribute to widespread nutrient deficiencies in our modern society. Research shows that certain nutrients are vital for joint health. They can protect the joints and minimize or delay arthritic symptoms. Such supplements include vitamins C and D, boron, glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, and MSM. The book offers readers an arthritis supplement prevention plan.
- Water your joints. Water makes up 70 percent of the cartilage in joints and plays a major role in the lubrication and shock absorbing properties of healthy joints. Dehydration may be a major underlying, and unrecognized, factor in degeneration and pain. Don't substitute sodas, coffee, and tea for water. These beverages contain ingredients that may block the absorption of water or act like diuretics, that is, promote excretion of fluids from the body. Drinks lots of good quality water everyday.
- Yoga for flexible joints. The book offers a arthritis prevention yoga program a selection of simple yoga postures doable in fewer than five minutes a day. These poses can increase muscle tone and the flexibility and range of motion of joints. Research indicates that yoga generates beneficial mechanical pressures on joints.
The bottom line - Become an antiarthritis warrior. For years doctors have been spreading the message of cardiovascular prevention how to protect our hearts and blood vessels. But little has been said about protecting our joints. We need to develop "joint awareness." Studies show that disability, due to arthritis, can lead to debilitating inactivity that in turn can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Become an "antiarthritis warrior" and incorporate as many joint-friendly strategies as possible into your lifestyle. In doing so, you'll be helping not only your joints but the rest of your body as well.
Ronald M. Lawrence, MD, Ph.D., is a renowned expert in the field of pain, geriatrics, and sports medicine. He is a founding member of the International Association for the Study of Pain, a senior member of the American Academy of Neurology, and founding president of the American Medical Athletic Association. He has served on the National Institute of Aging's National Advisory Council on Aging, as well as co-chairman of Sports Medicine of the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States, and medical consultant to the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. Health writer Martin Zucker, a former Associated Press newsman, has written extensively on natural healing, nutrition, fitness, and alternative medicine for more than twenty years. Lawrence and Zucker are co-authors of "Preventing Arthritis ".