Move to improve arthritis symptoms

Many of us take our joints for granted. Issues like joint health and joint mobility are not the sexiest topics around to be sure. And they certainly aren't as attention grabbing as How to get six-pack abs in 10 days, but our joints play a much more integral role in our daily lives than they are given credit for.

To begin with, we actually need our joints to move around. Without our joints, we would just be stiff skeletons with no way to move our bodies.

A joint is a part of our body that connects two or more of our bones. Special tissues called ligaments, connect the bones and our muscles hold everything together.

There are many different types of joints. Among them are the ball-and-socket joints at our shoulder and hips that let us swing our arms or do the hula. Meanwhile, the hinge joints like our knee and elbow joints, let us bend and unbend parts of our bodies.

In every way, our joints assist our movements, whether you are walking, running or even picking your nose. However, as we age, illnesses like arthritis can affect joint movement and mobility.

Essentially, arthritis is the inflammation of one or more joints. There are over 100 different types of arthritis, and most of them cause pain, stiffness and swelling of the joints.

The condition is seen in every age group, and is found in men, women and children, although it mainly affects the elderly. People in the age group of 50-66 are the most affected.

Arthritis involves the breakdown of cartilage, which normally protects a joint and allows it to move smoothly. Cartilage also absorbs shock when pressure is placed on the joints, such as when you walk. When cartilage is damaged, the bones rub together and cause pain, swelling (inflammation) and stiffness.

This disease can severely affect people's lives. Because arthritis usually causes pain in areas around the hips and knees, a person's ability to perform even the most basic of movements (such as standing and walking) can be affected.

Many are still unaware about the disease. The common perception is that arthritis occurs only with age. Often, people take painkillers to relieve the symptoms of arthritis instead of seeking medical attention. However, if left untreated, minor symptoms of arthritis can potentially take on a more severe and permanent form.

World Arthritis Day, held by The Arthritis Foundation, is part of a global effort to increase awareness on the various forms of arthritis, and to call on individuals and policymakers to take action to reduce the burden of arthritis around the world.

The Arthritis Foundation was founded in Atlanta, United States, in 1948, and is the largest non-profit organisation dedicated to supporting the cause.

World Arthritis Day was established in 1996 by Arthritis and Rheumatism International, and is observed in over 50 countries each year in the month of October.

This year, the celebration takes on the theme of "Move to Improve", and highlights the importance of exercise in tackling the disease.

Consultant rheumatologist Dr Amir Azlan Zain, president of Arthritis Foundation Malaysia, shared his thoughts on the importance of healthy living in maintaining joint health during a recent roundtable interview at Sunway Medical Centre in Petaling Jaya.

Determining the main causes of arthritis can be difficult, but risk factors that can contribute to an individual developing this problem include age, genetics, being overweight and having sustained a previous injury.

Those with physically demanding jobs such as assembly line workers or construction workers, as well as those who participate in certain high-level sports, are also thought to be at a greater risk of developing arthritis.

According to Dr Amir, leading a sedentary lifestyle can elevate one's risk of developing arthritis, if only for the simple fact that being physically inactive actually leads to poorer muscle strength and muscle tone.

While joint pain is caused primarily by the thinning of cartilage, factors like muscle strength and tone also play a role in reducing the risk of developing arthritic symptoms, as well as managing pain. Increased muscle strength and tone can actually lessen the likelihood of getting pain.

Dr Amir notes that an estimated 30-40 per cent of the workforce worldwide suffer from lower back pain due to working long hours (with a poor posture) that can contribute to the problem.

Up to 30 per cent of people aged 65 and above have also been shown to suffer from osteoarthritis, a form of arthritis that results from repetitive strains and increased mechanical loading on the joints.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that being overweight or obese can certainly aggravate the problem. The excess amount of weight impacts weight-bearing joints such as the knees, and can increase the pain of arthritis.

Fortunately, the advent of modern and powerful treatments like steroids and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs make treating an acutely painful joint relatively easy.

The difficult part remains in managing the condition of a joint after an episode of inflammation has resolved.

For one, it is important to exercise regularly to maintain joint function, especially on hinge joints that allow the movements of the limbs and fingers. The weakness that comes from the disuse of the joints can lead to muscle atrophy and other degenerative effects of arthritis. It is hence important to retain the functional movements of an affected joint to mitigate the risk of permanent damage and disability.

Exercises like walking, yoga and tai chi can help an arthritic patient manage the symptoms of the condition. Yoga especially, is a good activity that promotes muscle tone and strength without actually stressing the joints, says Dr Amir.

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