Many of us will experience some degree of joint degeneration or osteoarthritis as we get older, and Valentina Roffi, a clinical specialist physiotherapist says musculoskeletal problems are the most common health issue among our ageing populations.
But while the word ‘degeneration’ might sound alarming, it’s often not the losing battle it can sometimes seem, and Roffi stresses it’s a myth that joint problems will always “inevitably get worse”.
For some people, osteoarthritis – which develops after the cartilage lining the joint wears down, leading to inflammation, stiffness and pain – can be chronic and severe, and pain management treatment and even surgery can be a necessary reality in some cases.
But a lot of the time, there’s lots we can do lifestyle-wise, to help protect and boost the health of our joints – both before and after degeneration develops.
Get niggles checked early
Don’t wait until you’re in absolute agony and can no longer put any weight on that dodgy knee or hip to seek advice. Tackling things early can often prevent them getting worse.
If you’re experiencing ongoing symptoms involving multiple joints, see your GP – they may need to check whether there’s anything else going on. If it’s just one joint or muscle strain and you suspect it’s a sports injury, book in with a physiotherapist.
“Our advice is to seek help from a professional who can assess your specific needs with regards to strength, flexibility and general fitness, and address them with a tailored programme,” says Roffi. “This can be a combination of manual therapy and exercise, or just exercise alone. It is important to respect our bodies and their physiological needs.”
If you’ve got an acute injury or flare-up, resting can be very important. However, while it’s easy to think we need to avoid being active if we have aches and stiffness, this can be counterproductive and might make things worse. If you’re unsure or starting a new exercise regime for the first time, seek advice from your doctor or physio, and always listen to your body.
Generally speaking though, when it comes to keeping joints healthy, we need to be regularly moving our bodies. This means avoiding sitting in one position for too long and getting regular exercise, even if it’s just daily walks.
Be stretch savvy
A healthy degree of flexibility is important – but so too is remembering we’re all different. So, rather than getting too competitive in that yoga class, focus on listening to your own body. Healthy flexibility is about having a good range of motion and functional mobility – it’s not about forcing yourself into the splits or a crazy back bend so you can wow your Instagram followers.
Strengthen your core
Prioritising your core can be life-changing in the battle against pain, stiffness and caring for our joints. It improves posture, balance and helps take the strain off our spines.
We’re not talking about a bulging six-pack though. It’s about working all the big core muscles around the torso, back, abdomen and hips, as well as all the tiny stabiliser muscles around the spine and pelvic floor. Pilates is excellent for this, but it’s important to build up slowly and seek guidance if you have a history of pain and joint problems. Your physio will be able to suggest simple exercises you can do at home to get going safely.
Think joint-friendly nutrition
Nutrition can’t be overlooked in joint health. A varied, balanced diet is always the number one rule, but ensure you get plenty of omega 3 (found in oily fish, nuts and seeds), calcium (found in dairy products, green leafy veg, soya beans, tofu and fortified dairy alternatives), magnesium and vitamin D.
People may also want to avoid ‘inflammatory foods’ – such as red and processed meats, margarine and deep-fried takeaway foods – and pack in plenty of ‘anti-inflammatory foods’, like extra virgin olive oil, oily fish, brightly-coloured fruit and veg, nuts and seeds.
Be supplement savvy
Products designed to support joint health are among the most popular and widely taken supplements – and there is considerable clinical evidence around their effectiveness.
Of these, glucosamine, chondroitin and omega-3 supplements top the list. Glucosamine and chondroitin have anti-inflammatory effects and also provide building blocks to repair cartilage and make the synovial fluid [around the joints] more cushioning. Their main action, however, is to act as a biological signal to switch on the repair of joint tissues – the body interprets circulating glucosamine and chondroitin as a sign that joint tissue is breaking down, which triggers the formation of new building blocks, including type II collagen.
Turmeric is also hailed for its anti-inflammatory antioxidant benefits, thanks to the active ingredient curcumin, which is associated with helping reduce mild joint pain and swelling. There’s also been growing interest recently around CBD oil, with claims it may help ease muscle and joint pain.