Doctors increasingly are recommending physical activity to help osteoarthritis patients, overturning the more traditional medical advice for people to take it easy to protect their joints.
The new treatment approach comes as osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint disease once considered a problem of old age, has begun showing up in more middle-aged and young adults as a result of obesity and sports injuries. Studies have shown that weight loss, combined with exercises aimed at improving joint function and building up muscles that support the joints, can significantly improve patients' health and quality of life compared with medication alone.
Doctors recommend a range of moderate physical activities and weight loss to help manage osteoarthritis. Exercises to improve flexibility, such as the knee-to-chest stretch, decrease joint stiffness and improve range of motion. They also minimize muscle soreness after workouts and reduce injury.
"The most dangerous exercise you can do when you have arthritis is none," said Kate Lorig, director of the Patient Education Research Center at Stanford University.
Since each pound of extra body weight adds the equivalent of four pounds to the knees, even a small loss of weight can cut in half the risk of knee osteoarthritis for women, who are at higher risk than men, studies show.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stepped up funding to programs in a dozen states that include free six-week classes to teach osteoarthritis patients to take an active role in managing their disease. The federal Administration on Aging has funded similar programs in most parts of the country. And the nonprofit National Council on Aging has begun offering an online self-management program for patients to use on their own time.
Osteoarthritis, which can affect knees, hips, feet, hands and other parts of the body, occurs when the cartilage that cushions the spaces between the joints wears away. The disease affects some 27 million Americans and leads to 632,000 surgical joint replacements a year. It is the most common cause of disability for U.S. adults, according to the nonprofit Arthritis Foundation. That number is expected to grow as the population ages: One in two adults will develop knee osteoarthritis before age 85, and the risk increases to two in three adults who are obese.