Thinking about arthritis conjures up images of crooked old-timers with knobbled knuckles who rock back and forth on the front porch and predict the timing of the next big thunderstorm. Some of the most common stigmas about the inflammatory and degenerative disease might pop into your head: arthritis only affects old people, physical activity just makes it worse, nothing can fix it besides bearing the pain until it’s time for invasive surgery. These assumptions are all incorrect.
Arthritis is a blanket diagnostic term for a collection of more than 100 health conditions that affect joints and their surrounding tissues. Most forms of arthritis cause joints to swell or painfully stiffen, which makes everyday tasks such as gardening, jogging or even sitting down difficult. In the United States, nearly 53 million adults suffer from one or more of these conditions, and almost 300,000 children under the age of 18 have been diagnosed with some sort of arthritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While it isn’t known exactly what causes arthritis, it’s believed that genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors can all contribute to its development.
The disease is also incurable. However, incurable does not mean untreatable, and there are many ways arthritis sufferers can take back their lives from this crippling affliction, namely by refusing to stop moving. Kathleen Maier of Columbia suffered from osteoarthritis for nearly 16 years before she was able to find a treatment plan that worked for her. Osteoarthritis is the most common form of the disease and is characterized by a breaking down of the spongy cartilage between joints that causes the bones to rub together and degrade, according to the Mayo Clinic. Maier has a family history of osteoarthritis, and she and her siblings all began to feel its effects at a fairly early age. Now in her 60s, Kathlenn remembers the pain she used to endure after first noticing the symptoms in 1998. “I unfortunately developed [osteoarthritis] in many joints,” Kathleen says. “It causes me to have painful, swollen joints and weakness in my extremities. It’s particularly bad in my spine, where it has developed into degenerative disc disease, and in my knees where the cartilage has been exhausted.”
Kathleen has been through countless physical therapy sessions, scheduled numerous appointments with rheumatologists and undergone spinal fusion treatment, but it wasn’t until January 2014 that her doctor suggested she make an appointment with a physical therapy assistant at the Wilson’s Fitness location on Forum Boulevard. Kathleen found her answer there in the form of Gail Tweeddale.
Gail, a veteran in the PT world, graduated from the physical therapy program at Sinclair Community College in 1982. She’s worked with a wide range of arthritis sufferers throughout her career and has become an expert on the sensitive workout techniques people with spinal or arthritic issues require.
“It’s different with every person I work with because arthritis can affect virtually any joint in the body,” Gail says. “The key is to figure out that person’s specific range of movement, find out the areas that hurt and concentrate on appropriate ways to strengthen and loosen those up.”
Gaoil recommends engaging in low weight, range-of-motion exercises with high repetition and good posture as some of the best ways arthritis sufferers can strengthen their joints and alleviate pain.
“It was very difficult in the beginning,” Kathleen says about exercising with Gail. “We would work out for an hour, working on my core and flexibility. Then I would have to go home and go to sleep. I was so tired. At first, I was afraid working out would make everything worse, but then I started building muscles around my affected joints, and they got stronger.”
Before Kathleen began exercising at Wilson’s almost two years ago, the pain in her spine and extremities was so severe she wasn’t able to sit or stand in one position for more than a half an hour at a time. Her full-body exercises at Wilson’s focused heavily on upper body and core strength training until her muscles became stronger and she was finally able to bend and move at an almost normal level again.
“I would just really like to stress that this disease is almost as much a mental one as it is physical,” Kathleen says. “When you’re feeling like your body is limited, your mind tends to turn toward the negative as well. But it can get better and people need to do more.”
Amber Phelps is a health program specialist with the Central Missouri Regional Arthritis Center. The CMRAC is a nonprofit, federal and state funded organization that attempts to inform the public about the disease and connect sufferers with self-management and physical activity programs. Amber mirrored Kathleen’s thoughts about the importance of mental health when dealing with arthritis. She described the disease as a part of a vicious symptom cycle that many arthritis–afflicted people go through. “People with arthritis typically develop stress and anxiety about it, which then can lead to frustration and anger,” Amber says. “That, in turn, leads to fear or depression that can increase a person’s perception of the pain they might be feeling and makes them less inclined to be positive or active about fighting the disease.” In order to break the cycle, Amber says that people with arthritis need to manage their symptoms and set achievable goals for themselves. Above all, they need to keep moving.
In fact, continued movement seems to be the number one way to not only combat the effects of arthritis, but also to prevent it from spreading or worsening in people who are just beginning to develop it.
Brittany Wills is the co-founder of Sumits Hot Yoga on East Nifong Boulevard. She guesses that one out of every 10 members at Sumits has some kind of arthritis or joint pain. The company offers several classes, one of which being an 80-minute group yoga classes in a heated room with each routine cycling through a variety of yoga postures that members can partake in at whatever level they feel comfortable. Brittany believes that the low-impact, flexiblility-oriented nature of a yoga routine could be a very appropriate treatment option for some people with arthritis.
“With all of the different postures, you’re stressing and stretching your joints in a healthy way. With yoga, you’re building muscle and lubricating your joints in gently, working out in this heated room, using your knees, elbows, body weight. You can even do it at home.”
Brittany says Sumits Hot Yoga is especially attractive as a gentle means of caring for arthritis because its routines can be adapted to suit individual’s needs, and there is no judgment if a particular pose or routine is too intense.
Other sufferers have turned to more medical practices to alleviate their symptoms. Focus On Health Chiropractic opened its doors in 2010 by offering chiropractic care, rehabilitation services, and acupuncture therapy out of their Cherry Hill office. With a focus on spinal health, chiropractic care might be especially attractive to patients with spinal or lower back arthritis issues, though all arthritis sufferers might benefit from this type of treatment. One of the practitioners at Focus On Health, Dr. Clint Klipfel, reiterated the importance of movement in combating the disease.
“If you have arthritis, you should find the things that you like to do, then continue doing them. Keep your mobility up and prevent it from progressing,” Dr. Clint says.
By far, the main piece of advice from these professionals is to never stop moving. Working with a medical professional, determine a personalized and healthy range of motion, then continue to do activities that promote routine. Just as moss doesn’t grow on rolling stones, keeping your body in motion could help keep your arthritis at baay.