I Have Osteoarthritis. What now?
So, your imaging or doctor has told you that you have “arthritis.” You must be doomed right? It’s “bone on bone” but it’s not time, or you’re not a candidate for surgery. What should you do?! Most commonly the type of arthritis in these situations is “osteoarthritis” (OA) which results from a natural process of degeneration that comes along with aging. The cartilage between the surfaces of your joints gets softer and breaks down over time. This is more common in some joints that others but can affect multiple regions. There are many factors that can contribute to the severity of arthritis including genetics, lifestyle, obesity, menopause, etc. However, this doesn’t mean that there is nothing you can do!
The most important thing to remember initially is that correlation is not always causation. Meaning just because you have arthritis present does not necessarily mean that it is the sole cause of your dysfunction or pain. You and your neighbor may have the same exact severity of arthritis and you have a lot of pain and they have none. It is best to be evaluated by a Physical Therapist if you are having persistent pain with movement and are unsure how to manage it.
Secondly, in most cases, motion is lotion. The less you are up and moving, strengthening around the joint and keeping your muscles pliable the more likely you are to have “stiffening” and/or pain when you do get up and moving. Motion helps to bathe the joint surfaces in healthy fluid that keeps the joint lubricated and moving more easily. This is not to be confused with swelling which often causes more feelings of stiffness and discomfort.
Alright, I hear you. “But I’m hurting, how am I supposed to move!?” Oftentimes, the best place to start is like the best BBQ, low and slow. Low impact exercises such as walking, swimming (or pool walking) or cycling at first for just a few minutes at a time can be a good place to start. If those are even tough for you, have no fear! Physical Therapy is here! We can help come up with strategies to manage swelling, stiffness, movement dysfunction and pain making an individualized exercise plan that you can tolerate.
Generally, being sedentary is not going to help to manage your OA symptoms. Even if you have a small degree of discomfort or soreness following activity, it is usually better long term to build up your strength and tolerance to movement than to default to “rest.” It is common for rest to be prescribed as the first line of defense and people tend to fear “making it worse” causing them to want to be sedentary but this is a mistake! If you are unsure where to begin, meet with your physical therapist to discuss a safe and effective plan to manage your symptoms and help get you moving again!
Written by: Dr. Eden Climo, PT, DPT