By Dr. Nora DeVoe, Ph.D.
Geriatric Care Manager


Arthritis and Joint Pain

Some joint pain may be relatively innocuous- perhaps you overexerted yourself at the gym without properly warming up or overdid the yard work. But constant joint pain may be a sign of something more serious and should be checked by a doctor. A number of conditions can result in joint pain, but the most common cause in older adults is arthritis. There are more than 100 types of arthritis, but the two main types are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. It is important for you to find out if your aching joints are caused by arthritis because getting diagnosed means that you can learn how to protect your joints from further damage and find a treatment regimen that eases pain and stiffness sufficiently for you to remain as active as possible.

The ends of the bones that make up a joint are covered with cartilage, which is a smooth, slippery tissue that acts as a shock absorber, protecting bones from the friction of movement. Unfortunately cartilage loses its elasticity and strength as we age. This means it is more likely to split and tear under stress, and lose its bone cushioning properties. This leads to the most common form of arthritis in older adults: osteoarthritis, or wear and tear arthritis. In osteoarthritis, the ends of the bones begin to grind against each other as cartilage wears away, causing pain as the bone surfaces chip and decay.

You are more likely to develop osteoarthritis if you are overweight, have suffered a previous injury to a joint, or your joints come under repeated heavy use. Smokers and people with type 2 diabetes are at a greater risk too. There may also be a genetic component. Some people are born with a defect in their production of the collagen that is a key component of joint cartilage. Anatomy may also figure in as some studies suggest that unequal leg lengths and flat feet may lead to osteoarthritis.

The joints most often affected by osteoarthritis include the knees, hips, ankles, and spine, but the disease can also affect the shoulders, hands, and feet. The pain initially worsens during activity and gets better during rest, but as the disease advances, pain may occur even when the joint is not being used. The pain of osteoarthritis is generally described as aching, stiffness, and loss of mobility. Some people also experience muscle spasms and contractions in the tendons around the affected joints.

While joint discomfort may put you off exercising, research suggests that regular moderate exercise may alleviate pain and stiffness and slow the progression of osteoarthritis. Exercise strengthens the muscles that provide support to your joints. Weak muscles provide less support, which increases the stress placed on joints. Physical activity can also help with any efforts you may be taking to shed excess weight, which you should aim to do. Also, try exercising in water, which offers your joints relief from the weight bearing impacts that come with other forms of physical activity.

Next time we will talk about rheumatoid arthritis, another very common but different form of arthritis, as well as the differences between the two. We will look at pain relief and lifestyle strategies you may consider.

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Nora DeVoe is a Gerontologist specializing in Eldercare and Caregiver issues. She may be reached at (716) 667-7299.  

Dr. Nora is a ....