Arthritis is the leading cause of disability in Canada among women, third among men. Learn how to make a joint health plan by eating healthy, taking well-researched supplements and natural products, and staying active.
January is the perfect time to plan how to look after our joints this year, whether we suffer from arthritis or are feeling its first twinges. A proper diet, supplements, and exercise can help prevent or manage this condition. Let’s start the year off on the right—and pain-free—foot.
Causes and effects
Arthritis affects 4.6 million Canadians, making it a leading cause of long-term disability.
Although there are more than 100 types of arthritis, osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common cause of pain and stiffness usually associated with arthritis. Known as the “wear and tear” arthritis, OA often afflicts weight-bearing joints—hips, knees, and lower back—as well as hands, neck, and toes. Its main causes are aging joints, injury, and obesity.
OA causes cartilage in the joints to stiffen and lose elasticity. As this happens, the ability of cartilage to act as a shock absorber and reduce friction in the joints decreases, causing inflammation. With continued cartilage degeneration, tendons and ligaments stretch and ache. If the cartilage wears away, bones rub directly against each other. Shards of bone or cartilage may break free but remain in the joint, causing more pain.
Physically, as joints degenerate, they become increasingly stiff and painful. Over time, we may find it difficult or impossible to perform everyday activities such as walking, climbing stairs, or opening jars or tubes of toothpaste.
Mentally and emotionally, pain and the inability to perform tasks can affect our mood, leading to depression and anxiety.
Whether we want to stave off pain and stiffness or manage the symptoms we already have, having a game plan helps keep us mobile and enjoying an active lifestyle.
Studies have identified a variety of nutrients in food that may help prevent, ease, or exacerbate joint inflammation and pain.
As every pound of body weight adds four pounds of strain to our joints, losing excess weight decreases stress and pain on weight-bearing joints.
Foods to concentrate on:
Foods to avoid:
|vitamin C, vitamin K, magnesium, and antioxidants in fruits and vegetables (strawberries, citrus fruits, red peppers, broccoli, cabbage, kale, apples, onions, and shallots)||meats cooked at high temperatures, as they contain compounds that can cause inflammation|
|omega-3 fatty acids in fish (trout, salmon, mackerel, herring, albacore tuna, and sardines) and fish oil||processed foods, which are often cooked at high temperatures, too|
|healthy fats in nuts and avocados|
|healthy oils, especially olive oil|
Scientists and medical researchers are investigating dietary supplements and herbs, including those used in both traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic treatments. While complementary treatments often take longer to act than prescription drugs for OA, they may have fewer side effects.
Among the most promising natural products are
Eggshell membrane: A dietary supplement containing naturally occurring glycosaminoglycans and proteins for maintaining healthy joint and connective tissues. In clinical studies, eggshell membrane proved effective and safe for treatment of pain and inflexibility associated with joint and connective tissue disorders.
Glucosamine and chondroitin sulphates: Studies as to whether they can rebuild cartilage in OA sufferers have been inconclusive. In terms of pain management, studies have shown mixed results, though some studies suggest they help reduce pain in moderate to severe OA.
Curcumin: The active ingredient in the spice turmeric has been shown to have significant anti-inflammatory effects. Curcumin may slow OA’s progression and relieve symptoms.
Boswellia root extract: A review of studies points to this medicinal plant decreasing pain for OA sufferers.
Pycnogenol: The active ingredients in this extract of French maritime pine bark improved symptoms in a study of those with mild to moderate knee OA.
SAMe (S-adenosylmethionine): There is good evidence SAM-e can reduce OA pain.
Devil’s claw: A review of literature pointed to its effectiveness in reducing pain.
Green tea: While studies are still in early stages, animal research suggests a polyphenol present in green tea might slow the progression of OA and relieve pain.
Topicals: Creams, salves, and gels containing capsaicin, camomile oil, camphor, eucalyptus oil, and menthol can block pain transmission or trick the body into feeling coolness or heat rather than pain.
Other substances showing positive results in some trials but requiring more investigation include bromelain, avocado soybean unsaponifiables, cat’s claw, and ginger.
To select the supplements and herbs that are right for you, consult with the knowledgeable staff at your local health food store.
Most traditional homeopathic remedies have not undergone rigorous testing yet. However, several clinical trials suggest a combination of homeopathic substances, in gel and liquid forms, may be as effective as conventional medications for OA. These include
- marsh tea
When arthritis is painful, the last thing we want to do is exercise. But unless we’re experiencing a bad flare-up, physical exercise is essential for our bodies and minds. The less we move now, the less we’ll be able to move later.
Vary the types of exercises for best results.
Resistance training increases muscle strength, supports joints, and prevents additional damage. As Debbie Cheong, Osteofit Provincial Coordinator for the BC Women’s Hospital and Health Centre, says, “Strong muscles, tendons, and ligaments provide the body’s own natural brace and help the joint keep its alignment and function.”
Range-of-motion exercises help with flexibility and joint mobility.
Balance and agility exercises allow us to maintain daily living skills.
Aerobic or cardio workouts burn calories, decreasing weight and joint stress.
Exercises to avoid
Some exercises can worsen knee or hip OA, including
The combination of resistance and balance training helps prevent falls, a major risk for people with knee and hip OA. In one study of older women, simple strength and balance training decreased fall-risk scores by 47 to 57 percent. Cheong notes we should work with trainers or fitness instructors experienced with the demands of arthritis to modify exercises as needed and ensure proper posture and limb alignment while exercising.
Not interested in the gym? Cheong reminds us movement is not limited to this type of exercise. We should aim to incorporate activity in our daily lives.
Active video games that require you to emulate the movement in a certain sport—such as tennis, baseball, and boxing—burn calories. Following along with a yoga video helps improve joint flexibility and range of motion.
A daily walk with Fido or two-legged friends provides a low-impact, weight-bearing exercise, with a dash of fun and companionship.
Regular activity-oriented play dates with kids or grandkids become active, low-impact workouts, while board games, puzzles, or crafts help keep fingers limber.
Errands and housework such as carrying groceries, cleaning windows, and gardening provide opportunities for muscle strengthening and flexibility.
Tai chi or yoga classes designed for people with arthritis stretch the body and mind.
Trading the car for a bike gives a good workout while being easy on the joints.
Walking and using stairs instead of elevators and escalators builds leg muscles.
Swimming or aquatics, preferably in a heated pool, uses water’s buoyancy to ease movement by decreasing joint load.
Cheong’s advice? “Start small and build up slowly. If pain or discomfort continues for two hours after exercise, scale back the next time.”