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The Positive Impact of Exercise on Osteoarthritic Symptoms

23rd April 2021

Osteoarthritis is a commonly encountered joint disease, which often leads to joint pain, inflammation, and loss of function. In 2017, it was estimated that over 300 million people were suffering from this condition. Between 10% and 15% of all adults over the age of 60 present symptoms typical for joint disease, with a significant number presenting severe disabilities.

Even though there is currently no cure for osteoarthritis, adequate management can help keep symptoms under control and prevent further joint damage. Physical exercise has a positive impact on osteoarthritis symptoms, but the exercises must be adapted to each person’s individual needs.

Image of a female running over a bridge wearing a knee brace Your GP might recommend a knee brace to offload the joint, relieve pressure on the damaged side which will relieve pain and also help protect the damaged joint.

Osteoarthritic symptoms

The progressive joint damage associated with osteoarthritis leads to pain and stiffness. You might also have difficulties moving the respective joint, with a reduced range of motion. Inflammation worsens the discomfort, and you might hear crackling sounds upon trying to move the affected joint.

Osteoarthritis symptoms can range from mild to severe, and different joints might present various levels of damage. While mild symptoms can be easily kept under control, in case of severe deformities, you might have difficulties carrying out daily living activities. Weight-bearing joints, such as the knees and hips, are often affected by osteoarthritis. Similar changes can be seen in the small joints of the hands.

What leads to Osteoarthritis?

Over time, the joints are exposed to a normal wear and tear process. Up to a certain point, the body supports the repair process, compensating for any damage. It can happen that the cartilage protecting the joints begins to break down, leading to pain, inflammation, and a reduced range of motion.

In severe cases, bony growths appear as an attempt to repair the joint damage. Inflammation might cause the area to become red and warm to the touch. Risk factors for osteoarthritis include frequent joint injuries, with poor healing; preexistent conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis or gout; age and gender (women are more predisposed); family history of osteoarthritis; obesity.

To diagnose osteoarthritis, the doctor will consider the patient’s medical history, existence of corresponding manifestations, and the results of imaging studies. Additional tests might be recommended to rule out other potential medical issues.

Treatment of osteoarthritis

A long-term condition such as osteoarthritis requires adequate management to be kept under control. Your GP might recommend a knee brace to offload the joint, relieve pressure on the damaged side which will relieve pain and also help protect the damaged joint.

Follow this link to hear from three experts about the benefits of bracing- https://youtu.be/VqGhOBs_wjM

You may also be prescribed pain-relieving medication. Surgery is performed in case of severe joint damage, while physical therapy can help one feel better overall. Losing weight and becoming more physically active are two of the most important self-care measures one can take.

The Positive impact of exercise on Osteoarthritis

Physical exercise can be useful in managing the manifestations of osteoarthritis, preventing the condition from progressing.

These are some of goals of physical exercise in osteoarthritis patients:

  • Facilitating weight loss and reducing the strain on weight-bearing joints (knees, hips)
  • Improving the overall range of motion
  • Increasing strength & functional performance
  • Relief from discomfort symptoms, such as pain and inflammation

Low-impact exercise is most beneficial for such patients, as it bears a reduced risk of further damage. It is advisable to avoid high-impact exercises, such as running or weight training, as these place too much pressure on already-damaged joints.

Recommended physical activities include:

  • Low-impact exercise - swimming, cycling, walking;
    • Seated cycling is highly beneficial for the knee joint, allowing one to work the entire range of motion (partial load on the joint);
    • Walking is a simple exercise, which does not place too much pressure on the joints; it improves circulation, tones the muscles, supports heart health
  • Moderate aerobic exercise – beneficial for the heart and lungs, as well as weight control
  • Strength exercises - progression from isometric exercises to resistance training; performed regularly, these exercises can help the patient maintain flexibility in affected joints, as well as increase overall muscle strength (better joint support)
  • Posture training, with avoidance of maintaining the same position for too long (specific breaks that involve movement)
  • Aquatic exercises – reduced loading on the joints, no need to defy gravity; they are great for those who suffer from obesity, toning the muscles and offering relief from the pain (improved daily functioning)

Follow this link to see a full playlist of videos available - https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLYgMdld8EjLEYRlViUc3rYTwWDKzyizrZ

The positive impact of physical exercise on osteoarthritis, cannot be stressed enough. For instance, a well-designed routine can help strengthen the quadriceps and prevent a potential muscle atrophy. If this muscle is too weak, the knee joint will not be stable and there is a high risk of function loss.

To summarise, these are the benefits low-impact physical exercise brings to the table:

  • Reduces the risk factors for osteoarthritis progression
  • Increases the stability, as well as the range of motion in damaged joints
  • Offers relief from pain and inflammation, improving the overall functioning of the affected joint
  • Reduces the medication reliance and prevents the further damage of the joint, keeping surgery at a safe distance
  • Allows patients to resume daily living activities, thanks to the improvements in joint function.

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