What happens when the body of our patient is working against them and in turn us? With aging comes many physical challenges, whether it is the body slowly breaking down, or disease that attacks the body causing increased degeneration. Arthritis is one such challenge of aging and can make exercise a daunting task.
The two common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis which present themselves in slightly different ways. With osteoarthritis it is a breakdown of the cartilage around our bones causing less cushion and can lead to more bone-on-bone contact, inflaming the joint. Cayla Galarneau has written on this topic previously and you can check out her article from Oct 2021. Rheumatoid arthritis is caused by the immune system attacking the joint lining, leading to the joint once again being inflamed.
Since anyone can be affected by arthritis, and it becomes more frequent with aging, it is helpful to understand ways to work with seniors who may have arthritis as part of their primary treatment concern.
First, exercise is your friend. Keeping the body moving and muscles strong will help lower pain and stiffness since the joint is being supported. Of course, proper mechanics are still needed, and good posture goes a long way when working on areas of greater sensitivity. Exercise can also help with controlling weight which can wear down joints quicker. Swimming is a great example of an exercise that can cut down on the impact to an arthritic joint and get the joint mobile and muscles strong. For seniors especially it helps to do simple repetitive tasks so there is an easier time remembering and understanding what is required from them.
Heating up the joint can bring nutrient rich blood to the area and can relax sore and stiff joints and muscles. Warm showers, hot tubs, heat packs, paraffin baths, etc. can all help the start of your exercise or daily activity less painful. A slow warmup can also work to biologically increase temperature at the joint and prepare the muscles for increased activity. Senior’s love using heat and not having to do a large warmup before activity, if there is some time before a session get them to warm up the sensitive area.
Cold can also be used but is more for when acute pain or excess swelling is present. Since a large issue of arthritis is the stiffness and irritation of contact within the joint cold should be used sparingly. Be sure to slowly warm up the joint again if activity intensity increases again. This method won’t be as big of a hit with seniors, and they may have drugs that can accomplish a similar outcome.
Traction can be used to increase the space between the joints and relax the muscles around the joint which both contribute to reducing pain and increasing mobility without creating contact between bones in a joint that is already sensitive to compression forces. Studies, where knee traction was used to ease arthritis pain, have shown that it helps more than general physical therapy3. Care is required when using traction on the senior population since there may be a certain position or level of mobility that is needed to effectively traction the affected joint.
There is no cure presently for arthritis, but management is available through these tips and more. It is also important to note that according to the National Institute on Aging, “People with osteoarthritis who take part in their own care report less pain and make fewer doctor visits. They also enjoy a better quality of life.”2 So getting your senior patients invested in the process goes a long way for overall progress.