Joints are the places in our bodies where bones meet. They roll, glide, rotate or bend like a simple hinge to let you run, jump and do the chicken dance. Joints come in different sizes, shapes and varieties, but all of them are susceptible to wear and tear, damage and arthritis.
Almost 20 percent of people in the United States have arthritis [source: Harvard Health Publications]. Whether you're in the afflicted minority or the lucky majority, it's important to take care of your body and protect your joints to maximize their use, mobility and function for as long as you can. But it's not just about being able to coax your joints into action in the years to come -- preventing or limiting the amount of pain or discomfort you feel today is a plus, too.
Over time, even normal, healthy joints deteriorate, but you can minimize the effects by following 10 basic steps. And if your joints are already in pain, the tips in this article will alleviate your pain and make life a little easier.
10: Work Right
Many of us spend a good deal of time sitting at desks covered in keyboards, monitors and mice (of the computer variety). You may have trouble convincing your spouse otherwise, but there's a lot more than just sitting going on.
To create a good work environment, you don't want your chair too low. The higher it is, the less you'll have to bend to get in and out of it -- your knees and hips will thank you. If you're standing and working at a desk or counter, make sure you're not having to hunch over to write or type.
Take the time to arrange your workstation so you'll be comfortable in a variety of positions: typing on your keyboard, reading the screen with your hand on your mouse or writing on a desk surface. Make sure your elbows and forearms are comfortably supported, and that your thighs rest parallel to the ground (if it's more comfortable, it's also good to have your knees slightly higher than your hips, by using a footrest, for instance). It's important not to have a desk-and-chair combo that restricts your natural movement -- you should be able to rearrange your legs without bumping into the inside walls of the desk cavity. Your rear end should be pushed completely back into the chair.
Do all of this and your joints will be sitting pretty for years to come.
9: Posture, Posture, Posture
Although our bodies can bend and twist in all kinds of ways, they're designed to maintain a specific posture when not in action mode. Just like a marionette stands perfectly straight when the central head string is taut, so too should we stand as if a string were holding us up from the crowns of our heads, aligning our ears with our anklebones and creating a straight line that passes through our shoulders, hips and knees. By maintaining good posture, your muscles and skeletal system work together to put less strain on your joints.
This takes some effort and thought, as slumping or slouching is the normal stance for most of us. But good posture limits your bones from rubbing against each other unnecessarily at the joints, preventing or putting off the appearance of arthritis. Once you're used to standing ramrod straight, your muscles will feel an overall ease in stress, since they won't be in constant use to maintain an unhealthy zigzag body form.
Your back and neck will especially thank you, and good posture will help your shoulders, hips and knees from feeling tight.
8: Take It Easy, Sort of
You don't want to put undue strain on your joints, but you don't want to underuse them either. Try to maintain a nice, even balance between motion and rest. Work too hard for too long without a break, and your joints are going to go on strike. They don't like constant use, overuse or abuse, and if you push those joints to their limits, you'll suddenly find it's a lot more difficult to get a strong grip on that bag of groceries.
But if you stay at rest too long, you may encounter the same problems because your joints have stiffened up. Before stiffness creeps in, remember to regularly "shake it out" throughout the day. When you're at rest (or working in a seated or still position), remember to move around now and then and keep those joints limber. Get up at least once every hour and put your body into motion for a few minutes.
7: Live Like You're on Vacation
Taking care of your joints should, to the casual observer, look like you're taking care of your spirit. Soak in a nice warm bath. The heat soothes and relaxes the muscles and joints, and the water gives the joints a needed break from supporting you and fighting gravity all at once. A detachable shower head can help focus the water on joints that may especially feel stiff.
Paraffin baths aren't really baths, and instead of dipping into water, you'll be dipping yourself into hot wax (not too hot). Once hands or feet have been coated in the wax, it hardens and another person wraps the hands or feet with a cloth covering to retain the heat.
Treat yourself to massages. Professional massages are great for those of us who can regularly afford them, but massaging your own joints has benefits as well, such as lowered levels of discomfort and increased grip strength.
Acupuncture is believed to stimulate the release of pain-blocking endorphins in your body, meaning those achy signals your joints send won't be delivered. During your treatment, a number of superthin needles will be lightly inserted into your skin and left there for up to an hour. These needles can be warmed or even carry a slight electrical current to help relax your muscles. While scientific data is still in short supply regarding acupuncture, there are many practitioners and patients who believe it can help with arthritis symptoms. Relieving pain can help you relax, meaning your joints can also relax.
6: Count on the Big Joints
When there's physical work to be done, try to give the smaller joints of your body a nice break while your big joints swing into motion. They're big for a reason, after all. If you were to see a knuckle joint and an elbow joint side-by-side and had to choose one to pick up a plastic bag full of frozen groceries, you'd wisely go big, and so you should in your everyday life. If a bag or purse has a shoulder strap, see if you can "hook" it with your forearm when you pick it up, instead of clutching at it with your fingers. Also, hold it close to your body if possible instead of suspending it out from one side of your body.
When lifting something from the ground, bend using your hips and knees to protect the vertebrae in your spine. If a department-store door needs pushing to open, put a shoulder or hip to it. Use your foot or your rear end to shut the refrigerator door or clothing drawer.
If you can't go big, use tools or instruments to take the place of a larger joint. For example, instead of grabbing small drawer handles with your fingers, attach a loop of cloth or string to the handle so you can use your forearm for the task.
5: Eat Healthy
Your body weight plays a large part in your joint health: The less you weigh, the less strain you place on your joints. When you walk down stairs, your knees absorb a force up to five times greater than your body weight [source: Page]. Even when walking on a flat surface, your joints will moan and groan under too much of a load. A healthy diet is one way to keep excess pounds off.
If you're a heavy coffee drinker, you may want to consider cutting down or switching to a half-caffeinated coffee blend. Caffeine has been shown to weaken bones, and weaker bones lead to weaker joints. Nutritional supplements like glucosamine may help ease joint pain. Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish and nuts, can help decrease inflammation of the joints. Calcium, which can be obtained through vegetables like broccoli and spinach, helps prevent and reduce bone loss. Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium from the food you eat. Your body produces vitamin D when it's exposed to sunlight, so those living in cooler climates may need to take supplements.
4: Use It or Lose It
Your joints won't have much motivation to strive for full mobility if they're never called upon to do so. Without being fully extended, they'll start trying to get away with as little work as possible.
Stretch out every day. It doesn't have to be an extreme stretching marathon -- just spend a few minutes in your spare time manipulating your fingers, wrists, arms, ankles and anything else you plan on using for the rest of your life. Each stretch can be as short as five or ten seconds. The point is just to remind the joints that they do still in fact move, even if not very often. Try to move your joints through their complete range of motion, as long as it doesn't cause you pain. You can do this by using sturdy household objects to provide support while you gently turn, stretch, twist and limber up.
If exercise is on your schedule, stretch both before and after the activity. Not stretching before physical activity leaves you more susceptible to injury, which could drastically reduce your mobility and make matters much worse. With regular stretching, your joints won't just retain mobility -- they'll grow more limber and show you results you may have thought were no longer possible.
3: Gain Muscle
It won't be possible to have very strong joints without some muscles to back them up. The muscles and connective tissues that surround joints provide support, stability and guidance through the range of motion. You won't have to lift a Volkswagen on Muscle Beach for your joints to reap the benefits of muscle gain.
When you engage in weight-bearing exercises, your bones rise to the challenge and grow stronger in anticipation of supporting those loads again. Thicker bones equal fewer joint problems down the road.
Toning up will also improve your balance, meaning your joints will be less likely to sustain trauma in a nasty fall. Gaining muscle will also help you lose weight, which your joints will definitely appreciate -- your body continues burning higher rates of calories for hours after your workout.
You don't want to jump in carelessly, of course -- lifting weights the wrong way is worse than not doing it at all. Seek out the advice and guidance of a personal trainer to show you how to properly perform exercises that will build the muscle you need to protect your joints.
2: Act Your Age
As much as we may like to ignore the fact, none of us are getting any younger. While we may not be able to coax the same performance out of our bodies as we once could, adjusting expectations can help us in our quest to get the best results out of our bodies as we get older.
Many of the activities we engaged in years ago are best left to our memory banks and not our day planners. If the kids or grandkids are roughhousing or playing a game of backyard football, you might want to cheer from the sidelines. Nothing ruins the fun of a contact sport like watching someone roll around on the ground sobbing about their elbow (at least for the person on the ground).
When you pick up new activities, whether it's bicycling, bowling or aerobics, don't jump in with both feet. Take it easy at first, and slowly increase the demands on your body. Wear proper safety gear -- knee pads, elbow pads, helmets or anything else that is called for.
If you like getting on the roof to clean the gutters or patch leaks, it might be time to consider hiring a neighborhood kid to help you out. It can be hard to know when to "hang up the gloves" on a certain activity, but it's better to err on the side of quitting an activity prematurely than it is to put your future well-being in the hands of your local emergency response team.
1: Use Your Head
The best way to protect your joints when using them is to use your head first. If you're constantly bending over to work in your garden, can you create a raised flower bed instead? Instead of picking up an object from one end of a table to put it down on the other end, can you slide it instead?
Another "joint-smart" approach is to back off when your joints start reacting badly to a certain activity. It's smarter to put the activity on hold and rest your body (or check your e-mail) before returning than it is to power through the activity at the expense of your body.
Plan your day and arrange your activities so they're not all grouped together. If you have several projects, schedule a more intensive one between two simpler tasks to allow your joints plenty of rest. Don't overestimate how much your joints can handle. If you're pulling, grasping or carrying an object, change positions frequently if you feel stiffness coming on. Affix easy-grip pads to handles and knobs to help you turn or grasp them.
Decide if the task at hand is worth the toll it may take on your joints. Can you hire someone or call in a favor to get the task done? If you can sit comfortably instead of standing during a task, do it.
Your joints will thank you for thinking of (and for) them.
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- Arthritis Foundation. "10 Ways You Can Protect Your Joints." (March 11, 2009) http://ww2.arthritis.org/conditions/tips_jointprotection.asp
- Arthritis Today. http://www.arthritistoday.org/treatments/self-treatments/joint-health-2.php
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- University of Maryland Medical Center. "Omega-3 fatty acids." (March 19, 2009) http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/omega-3-000316.htm
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