Essential self-care for arthritis
By Barbara Floria, Pure Matters
If you have arthritis, taking your medication and following your doctor's recommendations are essential. But self-care can be just as important in your daily and long-term management of the disease.
Other important parts of treatment include exercise, rest and relaxation, a healthy diet, and instruction on how to use your joints and ways to conserve energy (no wasted motion).
The following medical and self-care steps can make living with arthritis easier and less painful.
- See your doctor and get an accurate diagnosis. The earlier an accurate diagnosis is made and proper treatment started, the better. "Early treatment often can mean less joint damage and less pain," says Dr. Klippel from the Arthritis Foundation. "In addition, the right treatment requires getting the right diagnosis. There are more than 100 types of arthritis, and each should be managed in slightly different ways."
- If you have a type of arthritis other than osteoarthritis see an ophthalmologist for a complete eye exam or discuss the need for an eye exam with your physician. Many of the inflammatory types of arthritis are associated with eye disease.
- Update your medications. If you've been taking the same arthritis medications for years, ask your doctor if any of the newer drugs have fewer side effects or provide greater pain relief than your current regimen.
- Take your medication as prescribed. If you're tempted to stop taking your medication because you believe it's not working or causing side effects, call your doctor first. "It can take weeks or even months for the full benefits of a medication to be felt or for side effects to disappear," says Dr. Klippel. "Stopping a medication abruptly may not only cause you to miss out on its benefits, in some cases it can be dangerous."
There are many types of arthritis. Experienced health care providers, physical therapists, and occupational therapists can recommend exercises that are particularly helpful for a specific type of arthritis.
Three types of exercise are best for people with arthritis, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS):
- Range of motion. This type of exercise helps maintain normal joint movement, relieve stress and increases flexibility.
- Strengthening. This type of exercise helps keep or increase muscle strength. Strong muscles support and protect the joints.
- Aerobic or endurance. This type of exercise improves cardiovascular fitness, helps control weight and improves overall function. It may also help reduce inflammation in some joints.
Here are some ideas for exercising with arthritis:
- Stay on the move. Regular exercise helps relieve and prevent arthritis pain. An effective program can help stabilize a weak or damaged joint and promote flexibility, which can reduce pain and stiffness. Be sure to check with your doctor before starting an exercise program.
- Warm up before working out. Start slowly and get up to speed only after your muscles and joints have had at least five minutes of prep time.
- Stretch it out. Warm up first by walking or taking a hot shower, then stretch. Stretching helps keep joints and muscles flexible, relieves stress and can help you maintain your daily activities.
- Take the plunge. Exercising in water can build strength and increase range of motion, and the water's buoyancy reduces wear and tear on sore joints. Check your local YMCA or call the Arthritis Foundation for an aquatic exercise program in your area.
- Avoid excess stress on your joints. Use larger or stronger joints to carry things. Shop for devices that can make tasks at home and work easier.
- Increase your range. Range-of-motion exercises (such as stretching) are a good way to keep your muscles and ligaments flexible and strong.
- Take a walk. Choose your favorite spots (indoors and out) and make plans to walk around them at least once a week. Walking is the ideal exercise for most people with arthritis. It burns calories, strengthens muscles and builds denser bones, all without jarring fragile joints.
- Monitor how you feel after exercise. If your joints hurt two hours after a workout, you're doing too much and need to reduce the length or intensity of your workout.
- Lose weight by eating fewer calories and exercising more. You won't just look better, you'll feel better, too. Research shows losing as little as 11 pounds may reduce your risk for osteoarthritis of the knee by 50 percent. "Every extra pound you carry around translates to added stress to your knees and hips," says Dr. Klippel. "Excess weight can mean more pain, no matter which form of arthritis you have. It also can contribute to and aggravate osteoarthritis."
- Pour a glass of orange juice or peel an orange. Research shows that vitamin C and other antioxidants can reduce the risk for osteoarthritis and its progression. Another bonus: Oranges and other citrus fruits are good sources of folic acid, which can help alleviate the side effects of the rheumatoid arthritis drug methotrexate and reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease in women with lupus, a form of arthritis.
- Be sure to get enough vitamin D and calcium. Low intake of vitamin D may increase the risk of osteoarthritis.
- Ask your doctor for advice about your diet and any connections between your food and the type of arthritis you have.
- Apply heat. To relieve pain and stiffness, try warm towels, hot packs or a warm bath or shower. Use heat therapy 15 to 20 minutes three times a day. Your health care professional may offer shortwave, microwave and ultrasound to get heat to joint areas.
- Try cold. Applying cold to sore spots also can help reduce pain and swelling. Use a cold pack, a bag of ice wrapped in a towel or a bag of frozen vegetables for a quick and easy cold treatment 10 to 15 minutes at a time. You also can try an "ice massage" and rub ice directly on a painful joint.
- Enjoy a massage. Massage can relieve muscle tension and help reduce fatigue. Certain forms, such as Swedish, focus on muscles and joints to improve function. Traction and manipulation also can help ease pain.
- Learn to relax. Relaxation therapy can also help reduce pain. Possible sources to learn these techniques include a physical therapist, the Arthritis Foundation or a health club.
- Acupuncture. Look for someone who is medically qualified to do acupuncture. Researchers believe that the acupuncture needles stimulate nerves that tell the brain to release natural painkillers called endorphins, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS).
Finally, learn everything you can about your condition so you can better manage it. Staying current with research, new medications, advances in surgery and arthritis devices can help reduce pain and maintain your activity level.
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