While it might seem counterintuitive, exercise and physical activity play a critical role in managing and reducing arthritis pain and increasing the mobility and strength – and thereby quality of life – of people with arthritis. Although it sounds torturous, a sensible approach towards physical activity can greatly improve your prognosis while fighting against arthritis, whether rheumatoid or otherwise.
This is because physical activity can help improve blood flow to the muscles surrounding and supporting the joints most affected by arthritis, while releasing endorphins, and strengthening the tissues in a way that helps improve balance, flexibility and creates more resilience in the joints.
However, it is the dose that makes the poison. Certain exercises, or going too far with certain activities, can worsen symptoms or lead to injury. It is important to seek and heed the advice of your arthritis pain management physician and choose a level and type of physical activity that matches your circumstances and condition.
Does Physical Activity Make Arthritis Worse?
Arthritis is a condition of swelling and pain in the joints. The main causes for arthritis include gout, infections, autoimmune conditions like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, and weakening cartilage via osteoarthritis. These are quite different causes, and arthritis pain management can vary immensely in intensity and type. In all these cases, symptoms include weakness and chronic pain. Arthritis pain management can drastically reduce quality of life, making day-to-day tasks, from brisk walks to writing, range from uncomfortable to excruciating.
Physical activity can help increase pain tolerance temporarily, reduce the body’s pain response, take pressure off the joints affected by arthritis, produce a long-term improvement in symptoms via strengthened muscle tissue, improve blood flow and circulation in the area, and more. However, the rate at which it does that depends on the patient’s pain levels and physical condition, as well as the type of physical activity.
There are certainly cases where physical activity is not advised, but in most cases, a little activity is better than none and will have a considerable effect both physiologically and psychologically. While we will provide some examples of effective and safe forms of physical activity for people with arthritis, be sure to discuss the topic with your physician. They know best what your condition might or might not tolerate.
Activities and Exercises in Arthritis Pain Management
Exercises and physical activities that are effective in arthritis pain management must fulfill a few basic requirements:
- Low impact: Low impact exercise is described as any activity that minimizes impact on one’s joints, including the spine, neck, hips, knees, elbows, and wrists. Impact can be accumulative. For example, while jogging places less strain on the joints than contact sports, a lengthy jog can still greatly strain the knees and ankles. Low impact alternatives include walking, cycling, and swimming.
- Strengthening: Strengthening is subjective, but generally implies that the activity strains the muscle enough to induce some type of adaptation and allows for consistent and safe progression. Examples include resistance training, yoga, and water aerobics.
- Tailored to one’s weaknesses: Physical activity can be therapeutic in more ways than one, by tailoring to a person’s weaknesses. If you have trouble exerting force through one side of the body, struggle with balance, or run out of breath easily, you can choose activities to build on those weaknesses while reaping the other benefits of exercise.
- Safety (subjective): Safety concerns differ from patient to patient. For some individuals, safe physical activity would be best defined as something performed around and among other people, so in the case of an emergency, there is always someone around to call for help. Under current circumstances, safety requirements would extend to upholding social distancing.
Activities and Exercises to Avoid
There are many viable activities and exercises that help support arthritis pain management. Exercises with variable and controlled resistance, such as working with bands, machines, or light free weights, can allow for safe and consistent progression and trackable improvements. Joint-friendly cardio, especially swimming, can relieve pain and help decompress the joints. But certain activities are taboo in most cases due to increased injury rates, including:
- Highly competitive sports: Friendly competition in a group can be a great source of motivation, and help raise interest in an activity, or encourage consistent exercise. But when push comes to shove, it is easy to go overboard for the sake of a win.
- Contact sports: Contact sports tend to be the greatest source of injury in the athletic world, including team sports such as basketball and football, as well as martial arts such as wrestling and boxing.
- Explosive weightlifting: Weight training can be an excellent rehab tool, but certain movements and exercises require strength and coordination to train safely. Coordinate with your physical therapist and physician to identify compound movements that are safe and effective, and avoid ones that may be too advanced, or are likely to lead to injury without strict instruction.
- Sprinting and jogging: High impact exercises work to further wear out the cartilage between joints and can lead to tenderness and swelling in the joints. Low impact alternatives are often preferred.
- Any activity resulting in sharp pain: pain is subjective, and what can cause pain also differs from person to person, based on weight, leverages, injury history, and more. Even if an exercise is generally deemed safe, if it remains uncomfortable or causes sharp pain and swelling at any point, seek an alternative.
Do I Need a Physical Therapist or Personal Trainer?
If you are seeking help programming an exercise plan for your arthritis, seek a professional and qualified physical therapist with experience training arthritis pain management patients with different forms of chronic joint pain. You could coordinate with your physician or pain specialist to find a therapist or look for one directly. Working on an exercise plan yourself is also fine, but it is still best to at least ask help from a physician when selecting exercises and activities to avoid or focus on. Physical activity can make life with arthritis easier but should be approached with caution.