What is arthritis?
The latin prefix for joints is “arthro” and the word for inflammation is “itis.” Therefore, arthritis literally means inflammation of the joints! So arthritis is not necessarily a specific disease, but rather a symptom of something going wrong in the body which makes your joints be inflamed. Arthritis has three major types: osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and infectious arthritis.
Osteoarthritis is also called degenerative joint disease. It happens when the smooth surfaces of the bones in the joints (cartilage) wear away. When this happens, the joints don’t move as smoothly. Sometimes the body tries to repair the surfaces and a bone spur forms.
Rheumatoid arthritis occurs when the systems in the body which are made to prevent disease or protect the body turn against the body’s own tissues. Many different types of rheumatoid arthritis occur and each has slightly different ways it attacks. In all, though, the body attacks the parts of the joint and makes it inflamed and painful.
Infectious arthritis happens when an infection gets into the joint and attacks the surfaces and tissues in the joint. The amount of damage done to the joint is dependent on how soon the infection is identified and properly treated.
In all the types of arthritis, the joint surfaces can become rough and, because the cartilage is thinner or worn away, there is more laxity or “play” in the joint so the joint isn’t as stable. The muscles around the joint try to tighten up and provide stability, so they get overworked.
Physical and Occupational Therapy can’t make the arthritis go away. But a skilled therapist can do an assessment to determine what muscles are being overworked. With an individualized exercise program, a person with arthritis can strengthen the muscles that help provide joint stability and decrease pain. A therapist can also instruct you in joint protection techniques which help you learn to use your body in ways to not put stress on joints that are affected.
How can I take care of myself with arthritis?
Having arthritis, or inflammation of the joints, can impact the way we do just about everything during the day. What are some of the ways you can take care of yourself to decrease pain and improve your ability to safely participate in the activities that make life fun? Joint protection, proper use of heat or cold and increasing stability of the joints can make big differences in how you function with arthritis.
Joint protection techniques are the use of techniques and tools to decrease the stress that is placed through a joint during activity. A basic tenet of joint protection is to use the biggest joint group possible to complete a task. So a person who pushes a swinging door open with their hip instead of with their hand is practicing joint protection. Using a larger size pen so that you don’t have to push as hard to make the pen write decreases stress on the finger joints.
Using heat or ice appropriately can help improve the health of joints and the muscles around them. Your joints have lubricating fluid surrounding them called synovial fluid. This fluid can get thicker when you don’t move your joints for some period of time. Heat applied to a joint will help the joints have more freely moving fluid and will also open up the blood vessels to the joints and muscles so they have better nutrition and can move better. After use, the joints and muscles can get inflamed and the body may send extra fluid to try to calm things down. Too much fluid puts more stress on the joint. Ice helps calm the inflammation and shrinks the pathways for fluid to the joint so there is less fluid pressure.
Joints that have their surfaces worn away have more laxity or looseness to them. Because of this instability, the ligaments holding the joints together get pulled and tugged. This causes more pain. The muscles around the joint need to made stronger to help hold the joints in their proper alignment. In some cases supports or braces may help to provide initial rest and stability to the joint until the muscles can get stronger.
A Physical or Occupational Therapist can do an individualized assessment to help determine what parts of the joints are affected, what needs to be strengthened, what needs to be supported and help look at activities to determine the best joint protection techniques for you.