Just as the tread on your tires wears away over time, the cartilage that cushions your joints can wear away, too, in a condition known as osteoarthritis. And without enough cushioning, the bones of a joint will hurt when they rub against each other.
Frayed cartilage can't heal or grow back. "There's no way to reverse the arthritis once it has started," says Michaela M. Schneiderbauer, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. But there are ways to reduce the pain and protect the cartilage you still have. Use these tips to slow the damage.
Whether you're a seasoned athlete, a weekend warrior, or totally laid-back when it comes to exercise, knowing how to protect your knees from damage can mean the difference between a fulfilling lifestyle and longterm, strained mobility.
Cruising on the track in the heat of a roller derby match, 27-year-old Rachel Piplica was not at all prepared for the realization that her knee could sideline her from competitive skating for months, possibly years.
"Suddenly, I heard a pop and it felt like...
1. Slim down if you're overweight. Shedding pounds takes stress off weight-bearing joints like the knee and hip. Every pound you lose takes 4 pounds of pressure off the knee. That could reduce the wear and tear in the joint, Schneiderbauer says. "You may actually slow the progress of arthritis if you lose a significant amount of weight."
What's 'significant'? "Every 10 pounds you lose will reduce pain by 20%," says Charles Bush-Joseph, MD, of Rush University Medical Center.
2. Do aerobic exercise. Arthritis pain may make you reluctant to exercise. But research shows that being inactive makes the pain and stiffness worse. Regular aerobic exercise boosts blood flow, which keeps cartilage well nourished. It can also help you reach a healthy weight.
"Stay as active as you can tolerate," Schneiderbauer says. "But avoid high-impact activities, like jumping and running." Better choices include walking, cycling, and swimming. Aim for 30 minutes of aerobic exercise at least 5 days a week. Be sure to check with your doctor before you start.
3. Build strength. Strong muscles can absorb some of the shock that normally goes through a joint during everyday activities, Bush-Joseph says. "A strong muscle will prevent a limb from slapping down on the pavement and jarring the joint."
Focus on building up the muscles surrounding an arthritic joint. To improve symptoms in the knee, for example, strengthen the quadriceps muscles in the front of the thigh. A physical therapist or personal trainer with experience in working with people with arthritis can show you exercises that will help.
4. Stretch every day. Stretching increases a joint's range of motion. This not only fights stiffness, but also helps protect the cartilage from further wear and tear. "The more joints move, the more the cartilage gets nourished by the joint fluid," Bush-Joseph says. He recommends yoga or Pilates to keep the joints moving and improve flexibility. "Don't feel like you have to be perfect in class. Instructors will accommodate people with limitations."
5. Try glucosamine and chondroitin supplements. Glucosamine and chondroitin may protect your cartilage. There is no proof that either supplement will rebuild cartilage or slow the progression of arthritis. But some studies suggest they can reduce arthritis pain.