Does it feel like you can’t get your body moving in the morning? Does joint stiffness make it hard to do your favorite activities? Join the club. Stiff, painful joints are a common complaint for people over 50.
The culprit: inflammation associated with arthritis. Inflammation stems from the body’s reaction to joint damage, or in the case of certain forms of arthritis like rheumatoid arthritis, a faulty immune response—the body responds as if normal tissues are abnormal in some way.
With inflammation, white blood and other inflammatory cells cause joint fluid to collect in and around a joint, triggering swelling and stiffness. Stiffness can occur when you wake up or following activity. And it can affect joints from head to toe—feet, ankles, hands, fingers, wrists, elbows, hips, shoulders, and jaw.
Here’s how to manage this common joint symptom:
Eat inflammation-fighting foods like ginger. Just two to three teaspoons a day can help. “It relieves symptoms by blocking an enzyme that’s a key component of the inflammatory process,” says Christopher D. Black, Ph.D., assistant professor of kinesiology at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, GA. Or eat soy, which cut knee pain by 30 percent in a study from Oklahoma State University. Forty grams (about 1 ½ ounces) of soy protein a day for three months did the trick, slashing patients’ use of pain medication in half, thanks to soy’s plant hormones with anti-inflammatory properties. Other anti-inflammatory foods: Cherries, red grapes, and turmeric.
Three-quarters of patients who practiced tai chi, an ancient system of movement and meditation, reported less discomfort from knee osteoarthritis—arthritis that stems from degeneration of joint cartilage—compared to 17 percent of patients in a control group, a Tufts University study found. Some 72 percent of those in the tai chi group had less stiffness, compared to 42 percent of those who didn’t exercise. Or try other forms of exercise like yoga or gentle stretching that work your range of motion, keep joints loose and flexible, and strengthen muscles, which takes the pressure off stiff, painful joints.
NSAIDs, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Motrin and Aleve, reduce inflammation and pain and are available over-the-counter. Need something stronger? Ask your doctor about prescription formulations and other drugs that can help. NSAIDS can cause bleeding in the GI tract and may increase the risk of cardiovascular problems, so also ask how often and at what dose you can safely take these medications.
For good short-term relief of stiffness and pain, try applying heat or cold to the affected joint. Some find heat (from heating pads to heated polls) soothing. It can relax muscles and increase circulation. Others like it cold (ice packs or a bag of frozen peas) because it reduces swelling and quells inflamed nerves. Or try 20 minutes of each.
Switching the fat in your diet can help calm inflammation. Experts suggest replacing corn, safflower and sunflower oils with olive, canola and flaxseed oils. And extra virgin olive oil boasts oleocanthal, which has properties similar to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications. It’s also wise to reduce the foods in your diet that contain omega-6 fatty acids, such as meat and poultry, which contribute to inflammation. Limit consumption to 4 to 6 ounces a day (the size of a deck or two of playing cards). Aim to eat two or three servings a week of cold water fish, such as salmon, which contain inflammation-fighting omega-3 fatty acids.
Weight stresses your joints and can kick up inflammation. If you’re overweight, losing as little as 10 to 15 pounds could cut your risk of osteoarthritis—a major source of stiffness—in half. According to a study in Arthritis & Rheumatism losing one pound of weight results in four pounds of pressure being removed from the knees.
Research shows that acupuncture—the use of ultra fine needles on specific places on the body to affect positive changes—can relieve joint symptoms. In a German study of people with osteoarthritis of the knee, 15 sessions of acupuncture combined with the usual medical care resulted in less pain and stiffness than standard care alone. And the benefits lasted for three months.
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