Many people are hesitant to exercise after they’ve been diagnosed with osteoarthritis, because they’re afraid that it’s going to cause them more pain. However, exercising and staying active is a crucial part of managing your osteoarthritis. The old adage “use it or lose it” applies here-the more that you don’t use your muscles, the more you lose them. Without exercise it can become a cycle; over time you lose your range of motion and become fatigued, then you aren’t motivated to be active and you become even weaker. So even though you may experience discomfort as you learn how to exercise with osteoarthritis, you’ll be much better off in the long run.
The way that you approach exercise after your diagnosis depends, to some extent, on how active you were beforehand. If you’re someone who has exercised regularly throughout your life, the best approach may be to find ways to modify your activities. For example, if you enjoy running, you may need to run fewer times a week, run for fewer miles, and/or alternate running with more low impact activities like bicycling, swimming, or using the elliptical.
On the other hand, if you haven’t been as physically active you want to start out very slowly and simply with basic range of motion, flexibility, and strengthening exercises. Isometric exercises that isolate and activate one particular muscle, such as quad sets, may be a good place to start. Your doctor and/or physical therapist will be able to help you develop a program of appropriate exercises.
Often I find that my patients have a difficult time distinguishing between arthritic pain in their joints and the normal muscular aches that come with physical activity, especially if they aren’t used to exercising. You should never push through arthritic pain, so it’s important to be able to tell the difference between the two. One good method is to perform an exercise on your unaffected side first (the side without arthritis). That way you’ll be able to feel how your muscles respond to the exercise. Then when you perform the exercise on the side where you do have arthritis, you should feel a similar sensation in your muscles. If you feel any sharp pains then discontinue the exercise and find another variation or movement.
Another good option for people with osteoarthritis who are having trouble getting around is to use an assistive device such as a cane, walker, or crutches-whatever works best for you. Assistive devices unload the joints and make it a lot easier to stay active.
Modalities like ice and heat are great too. Heat is very good early the morning, when people with arthritis are often very stiff from laying still all night. Heat is also good to use before exercising, as it can loosen your muscles up a bit. After exercise or at the end of the day, it’s generally good to use ice because your joints will often be swollen and irritated or inflamed and ice can calm it down. Both ice and heat can be used for about 10-15 minutes. I tell my patients to use some sort of barrier when using either, like a thin towel, so that they don’t burn their skin.
Staying active while dealing with osteoarthritis can be a challenge and you may need to try a few things to find out what works best for you, but with some patience and perseverance and the support of your physician or physical therapist, you can maintain an active lifestyle.