Osteopenia is a term used to describe bone density that is somewhat lower than normal — but not low enough to be diagnosed as osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a condition in which thinning bones become so fragile that they are prone to fracture easily. A person who has osteopenia is at risk for osteoporosis and may benefit from treatments to strengthen bone.
How Osteopenia Happens
Generally by age 30, your bones are as strong and dense as they will ever be. After that, the bones begin to get thinner with age.
Women are more likely than men to develop osteopenia, because their bones are thinner to begin with. Hormonal changes at the time of menopause also speed up bone loss.
Depending on bone density measures and other factors — such as previous fractures, poor health, and poor mobility — women with osteopenia may have the same risk for a broken bone as women with osteoporosis. Women at risk of bone fractures need treatments to help slow bone loss or help new bone form.
The following healthy habits and treatments for osteopenia may strengthen bones and reduce fracture risk.
A Healthy Lifestyle
The best remedies for osteopenia are lifestyle habits everyone should adopt. If you have strong bones, a healthy lifestyle can help keep them that way. If you already have osteopenia, these same habits can help reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
Exercise. Like muscle, bone becomes stronger when you exercise. The best exercise for bones is weight-bearing exercise that forces your body to work against gravity. This type of exercise includes walking, stair climbing, dancing, and working out with weights.
Diet. For strong bones, you need a diet rich in calcium and vitamin D. High-calcium foods include:
Dairy products such as cheese, ice cream, low-fat milk, and yogurt
Green vegetables such as broccoli and collard greens
Sardines and salmon, with bones
Your body makes its own vitamin D when your skin is exposed to sunlight. If you spend much time outdoors in the sunshine you probably have most of the vitamin D you need. A few foods naturally contain vitamin D. Others, such as grains and milk products, are fortified with vitamin D. Good dietary sources of vitamin D include:
Fish such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel
Fish liver oils
Fortified breakfast cereals, juices, milk products, yogurt, and margarine
A small percentage of the population may have accelerated bone loss or osteoporosis from Celiac disease, or a gluten sensitivity to wheat products.
Smoking and drinking. If you smoke, it’s important to quit. Studies have shown a direct relationship between cigarette smoking and decreased bone density. Quitting smoking may help limit bone loss due to smoking.
If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation (no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men). Too much alcohol can interfere with the balance of calcium in your body and affect the production of hormones and vitamins that play a role in healthy bones. It can also increase your risk of falling, which could cause you to break a bone.
Cutting back on salt and caffeine. Both caffeine and salt may contribute to calcium and bone loss. To improve bone health, switch to non-caffeinated beverages, avoid soft drinks, check labels of packaged foods for sodium content, and remove the salt shaker from your table.
Drugs for Osteopenia
Depending on your situation, particularly if you have already broken a bone, your doctor may prescribe medication to reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis and further fractures. Medications that may be used for osteopenia or prevention of osteoporosis in these cases include:
Bisphosphonates. Bisphosphonates are medications that slow the natural process that breaks down bone, which results in maintenance or a small increase of bone density. Bisphosphonates are the main drugs used to prevent and treat osteoporosis in postmenopausal women. This class of drugs includes Fosamax, Boniva, Actonel, and Reclast. Most bisphosphonates are taken by mouth, usually once a week or once a month. Reclast is given by injection, usually once a year.
Calcitonin. Calcitonin, a hormone that helps prevent the breakdown of bone, is available generically and under the brand names Fortical and Miacalcin. It is given by injection or nasal spray. Calcitonin is also found in salmon.
Hormone replacement therapy. Once a popular therapy for preventing bone loss, hormone replacement therapy is rarely used for that purpose anymore, because it has been found to increase the risk for deep venous thrombosis (blood clots in the leg), pulmonary embolus (blood clots in the lung), and other health problems. Sometimes, if hormone replacement has been helpful for easing a woman’s menopausal symptoms, her doctor may recommend continuing it for bone loss, too. If you are considering hormone replacement therapy to prevent osteoporosis, speak with your doctor about the potential risks.
Parathyroid hormone. Forteo, a portion of hormone made by your parathyroid glands, is the first agent to stimulate the formation of new bone. It is approved for women and men and is given daily by a shot beneath the skin.
Evista. Similar to the breast cancer drug tamoxifen, this drug is used to prevent and treat osteoporosis. It may also be protective against heart disease and breast cancer; however, more studies are needed to confirm its protective effect. It is taken by mouth once a day.
Natural Treatments for Osteopenia
Although your doctor may recommend medications if you have already broken a bone, there are a number of nutritional supplements and herbs women with osteopenia may try to promote stronger bones. The main ones are calcium and vitamin D supplements. If you aren’t getting enough calcium in your diet and don’t spend much time in the sun, speak to your doctor about these supplements. Calcium is an important mineral needed to make bone. Vitamin D helps your body use calcium. Most adults should get between 1,000 and 1,200 milligrams of calcium and 400 and 1,000 international units (IU) of vitamin D daily.
Evidence is limited, but other nutritional supplements that may potentially help strengthen bones include:
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) — the two omega-3 fatty acids found in fish
Folic acid, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12
Herbs that might be helpful include:
Talk to your doctor about herbal and nutritional supplements before taking them.
Fun With Kids? Don’t Let Arthritis Stop You.
Share a Hobby or Class
Spend time with your kids or grandkids and have fun while you’re moving. Even with arthritis, you can enjoy the low-impact exercise you need to keep your joints flexible and muscles strong. Try taking a class together or share an active hobby, such as swimming, golf, dancing, or gardening.
Train for a Fun Run or 5K
Take part in a local fun run, walk, or 5K with the kids but do it right, advises Patience H. White, MD, MA, vice president of public health for the Arthritis Foundation. Talk to your doctor to make sure running or walking is OK for you. Then find out the best way to get started based on your flexibility, strength, and ability.
Try Tabletop Games
Knee osteoarthritis pain can keep you from spreading out on the floor to play traditional games like puzzles, chess, and dominoes. Instead, take them to a table so you can sit comfortably. Or introduce kids to active games like table tennis, foosball, or billiards that let you move around to help prevent stiffness.
Cooking With the Kids
Every pound of excess weight you lose takes four pounds of pressure off your knees. So a healthy weight may mean less arthritis pain — particularly when you have knee osteoarthritis. Although no diet prevents arthritis or lessens its progression, a balanced diet is vital for weight management. Cook with the kids and whip up healthy muffins, casseroles, or breads.
Arts and Crafts
Get small muscles in motion by getting crafty. There are so many things you can do — from models, mosaics, and scrapbooks to jewelry, candles, and decorating clothes. If arthritis in your hands prevents you from doing a lot of cutting or painting, let the kids do the detail work while you do the bigger jobs or oversee the project.
Stretching and strength-building are vital if you have arthritis, so find a way to get some activity in while you’re outdoors. Grab the kids and kick through fallen leaves as you head out to fly kites. Toss a ball back and forth, but buy several sizes, to suit your grip. Or design an obstacle course that encourages flexibility along with fun. Just be sure to listen to your body, so you don’t overdo it.
Have High-Tech Fun
Get an easy aerobic workout as you walk parks and trails with geocaching, an outdoor treasure hunt that uses GPS to find hidden objects tucked inside containers. Or take the fun indoors with active video games that get you moving and off the couch. As with all exercise, avoid specific movements that put too much pressure on your joints.
Get a spic-and-span house and yard with the benefit of mild stretches and range-of-motion exercises. If your kids or grandkids are small, keep pint-sized brooms, mops, and rakes on hand, then get “help” with the chores. Remember to take stretching breaks often and alternate your motions so you don’t strain your joints. Choose ergonomic tools for easier gripping.
Go Treasure Hunting
Hide toys and trinkets around the yard or park (stretch gently when you are reaching to place the items), then join kids on a scavenger hunt. Or buy a few pairs of low-cost binoculars or magnifying glasses, grab a nature guide, and get some aerobic exercise as you search for birds, butterflies, bugs, or wild flowers.
Grow a Garden
Kids love digging in the dirt, so start a container garden or a couple of raised garden beds and see who can grow the brightest flowers or biggest tomatoes. Make sure you have great equipment, including pads to kneel on and ergonomic tools with fatter grips or longer handles.
Walk the Dog
Grab the kids and your dog and get walking. Not only will you get your muscles moving, but a stroll can help relieve arthritis symptoms for you and your pet. Research shows that walking can ease pain, improve function, and increase quality of life for people with osteoarthritis. For a stronger workout, enroll everyone in dog agility training classes.
Discover Your Own Fun
Whatever you do with your kids or grandkids, the point is to stay active. When you have arthritis, joints often hurt — so it’s tempting to stop using them. But then muscles get weak, joints have more trouble functioning, and pain may increase. So whether it’s swimming, walking, or just spending time on the playground, it’s important to keep moving.
A compound found in broccoli could help prevent or slow the progress of the most common form of arthritis.
Osteoarthritis is a joint disease caused by the breakdown of cartilage and bone in joints. It most often affects the hands, feet, spine, hips, and knees. The main symptoms are pain and stiffness.
New research in mice shows that the compound sulforaphane slows down the destruction of cartilage in joints.
Eating cruciferous vegetables such as Brussels sprouts and cabbage, and particularly broccoli, releases sulforaphane.
The researchers from the University of East Anglia in the U.K. say that previous studies have suggested that sulforaphane has anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties, but this is the first major study into its effects on joint health.
The study, published in the journal Arthritis and Rheumatism, found that sulforaphane blocks the enzymes that cause joint destruction. (Enzymes are proteins that cause chemical changes in your body.)
Researchers from the university are now testing their findings on osteoarthritis patients due to have knee replacement surgery. If successful, they hope it will lead to funding for a large clinical trial to show the effect of broccoli on osteoarthritis, joint function, and pain.
“The results from this study are very promising,” researcher Ian Clark says in a statement. “We have shown that this works in the three laboratory models we have tried, in cartilage cells, tissue, and mice. We now want to show this works in humans.”
In the human study, half the 40 patients enrolled will be given “super broccoli,” specially grown to be high in sulforaphane. They will eat it for 2 weeks before their surgery. Once the surgery has taken place, the researchers will look at whether the compound has affected the joint.
“Although surgery is very successful, it is not really an answer,” Clark says. “Once you have osteoarthritis, being able to slow its progress and the progression to surgery is really important. Prevention would be preferable, and changes to lifestyle, like diet, may be the only way to do that.”
Alan Silman, medical director at Arthritis Research U.K., says in a statement that the study has “promising results.”
“Until now research has failed to show that food or diet can play any part in reducing the progression of osteoarthritis, so if these findings can be replicated in humans, it would be quite a breakthrough.”
Cook Comfortably With RA
A few tweaks to your kitchen setup can keep RA from ruining your joy of cooking. Start by finding a sturdy stool that’s the right height for sitting in front of your counter or stovetop. Now you won’t have to stand while chopping or stirring.
Use a Toaster Oven
When possible, do your baking, broiling, and reheating in a toaster oven or countertop microwave. This will spare your joints the stress of stooping to use a traditional oven or reaching up to use an overhead microwave.
Hang Your Pots and Pans
Keep yourself from bending over by storing the items you use the most at arm level. Instead of crouching to dig pots and pans out of cabinets, hang them on wall hooks or from a ceiling rack
Store Ingredients in Easy Reach
Keep cooking oil, seasonings, and other common ingredients on your counter so they’re always within comfortable reach. Store sugar, flour, coffee, and tea on the counter in containers with easy lift-off lids.
Switch to Ergonomic Utensils
A few well-designed kitchen utensils can make a big difference. An ergonomic knife with a large handle lets you use your body weight to slice instead of your hand or wrist. Padded handles make spatulas and other utensils more comfortable to grip. And two-handled pots and pans are a must. Distributing the weight across both hands makes carrying easier.
The repeated motions of chopping, mincing, or mixing can be hard on your joints. Let small electric appliances do some of the work for you. An immersion blender or handheld drink mixer can get your whisking done quickly and painlessly. A food processor is perfect for mincing and shredding. And an electric jar opener takes away the strain of twisting off lids
Put Your Fridge on a Leash
If you have trouble opening the door to your fridge, tie a scarf or leash around the handle and knot it into a circle. Hook your arm through the loop and pull the door open with your upper body.
Fill Pots Cup by Cup
When you need to fill a pot, set it on the stove empty. Use a measuring cup or pitcher to transfer water from the sink in amounts you can manage. If your sink is far from your stove, set your pot on a rolling plant stand. Roll it up to the sink, fill it cup by cup, and then roll in back to the stove.
Use a Slow Cooker
Don’t spend a lot of time standing over the stove to make meals. Let a slow cooker do the work for you. Add pre-sliced frozen vegetables, meat, liquid, and seasoning. Then you can be kitchen-free until your hot, home-cooked meal is ready.
Wash Dishes by Hand
Forget all that bending to load and unload a dishwasher. Hand-wash your dishes, and let the warm water soothe your joints. Set clean dishes in a rack to air dry, so you won’t have to towel them off.
Cook Once, Eat Twice
Whenever you cook, double the ingredients so you have a second meal to freeze. This gives you an easy solution for those days when your joints are particularly achy — or when you just feel like a night off from cooking.
Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition that affects about 5 million Americans. Doctors diagnose fibromyalgia based on a patient’s symptoms and physical exam. Patients experience pain and stiffness in the muscles, but there are no measurable findings on X-rays or most lab tests. While fibromyalgia does not damage the joints or organs, the constant aches and fatigue can have a significant impact on daily life.
The hallmark of fibromyalgia is muscle pain throughout the body, typically accompanied by:
Anxiety or depression
Specific tender points
Fibromyalgia Tender Points
One of the unique aspects of fibromyalgia is the presence of tender points in specific locations on the body. When these points are pressed, people with fibromyalgia feel pain, while people without the condition only feel pressure. This illustration shows 18 possible tender points.
Fibromyalgia: The Pain Is Real
The pain of fibromyalgia can be intense. Because traditionally no lab tests or X-rays could confirm a diagnosis of fibromyalgia, some patients were once led to believe this pain was “all in their heads.” But the medical community now accepts that the pain of fibromyalgia is real. Research suggests it’s caused by a glitch in the way the body perceives pain.
Fibromyalgia: Who’s at Risk?
Women between the ages of 25 and 60 have the highest risk of developing fibromyalgia. Doctors aren’t sure why, but women are 10 times more likely to have the condition than men. Some researchers believe genetics may play a role, but no specific genes have been identified.
Fibromyalgia and Fatigue
After pain, the most common and debilitating symptom of fibromyalgia is fatigue. This is not the normal tiredness that follows a busy day, but a lingering feeling of exhaustion. People with fibromyalgia may feel tired first thing in the morning, even after hours spent in bed. The fatigue may be worse on some days than others and can interfere with work, physical activity, and household chores.
Causes of Fibromyalgia
There are many theories about the causes of fibromyalgia, but research has yet to pinpoint a clear culprit. Some doctors believe hormonal or chemical imbalances disrupt the way nerves signal pain. Others suggest a traumatic event or chronic stress may increase a person’s susceptibility. Most experts agree that fibromyalgia probably results from a combination of factors, rather than a single cause.
Fibromyalgia: Impact on Daily Life
Constantly fighting pain and fatigue can make people irritable, anxious, and depressed. You may have trouble staying on task at work, taking care of children, or keeping up with household chores. Exercise or hobbies such as gardening may seem daunting. Exhaustion and irritability can also lead to missing out on visits with friends. Fortunately, there are effective treatments that help many patients get back to the activities they enjoy.
Your doctor may diagnose fibromyalgia after hearing your symptoms and doing a physical exam. There’s one lab test that can check for fibromyalgia. It measures the levels of proteins in the bloodstream and can help confirm a fibro diagnosis. However, your doctor may also do some testing to rule out other conditions. Be sure to describe your pain in detail, including where and how often it occurs. Also bring up any other symptoms, such as fatigue, sleep problems, or anxiety.
Fibromyalgia: Getting Treatment
Fibromyalgia was once the exclusive domain of rheumatologists. Today, the condition has captured the attention of a wide range of health care providers. Many people receive treatment through their primary care providers. Check with local support groups and hospitals for a list of fibromyalgia experts in your area.
An important first step is identifying what makes your symptoms worse. Common triggers include:
Cold or humid weather
Too much or too little physical activity
Fibromyalgia and Sleep
Many people with fibromyalgia have sleep problems, including trouble falling asleep or frequent awakenings during the night. Studies suggest some patients remain in a shallow state of sleep and never experience restful, deep sleep. This deprives the body of a chance to repair and replenish itself, creating a vicious cycle. Poor sleep may make pain seem worse, and pain can lead to poor sleep.
Fibromyalgia and Depression
Nearly a third of people with fibromyalgia also have major depression when they are diagnosed. The relationship between the two is unclear. Some researchers believe depression may be a result of the chronic pain and fatigue. Others suggest that abnormalities in brain chemistry may lead to both depression and an unusual sensitivity to pain. Symptoms of depression may include difficulty concentrating, hopelessness, and loss of interest in favorite activities.
Managing Fibromyalgia: Medication
The goal of fibromyalgia treatment is to minimize pain, sleep disturbances, and mood disorders. Doctors may recommend medications that help ease your symptoms — ranging from familiar over-the-counter pain relievers to prescription drugs. There are also prescription drugs specifically approved for the treatment of fibromyalgia, which include Cymbalta, Lyrica, and Savella.
Managing Fibromyalgia: Exercise
Exercise can relieve several fibromyalgia symptoms. Physical activity can reduce pain and improve fitness. Exercising just three times a week has also been shown to relieve fatigue and depression. But it’s important not to overdo it. Walking, stretching, and water aerobics are good forms of exercise to start with for people with fibromyalgia.
Managing Fibromyalgia: Diet
Some experts say diet may play a role in fibromyalgia — just not the same role in all patients. Certain foods, including aspartame, MSG, caffeine, and tomatoes, seem to worsen symptoms in some people. But avoiding these foods won’t help everyone. To find out what works for you, try eliminating foods one at a time and recording whether your symptoms improve.
Managing Fibromyalgia: Massage
Some research suggests massage may help relieve fibromyalgia pain, though its value is not fully proven. Practitioners say that applying moderate pressure is key, while the technique is less important. Rubbing, kneading, or stroking all seem to help. A significant other can learn to provide regular massages — and a 20-minute session may be long enough to get results.
Managing Fibromyalgia: Acupuncture
Formal studies have produced mixed results on the use of acupuncture for fibromyalgia, but some patients say it eases their symptoms. This traditional Chinese practice involves inserting thin needles at key points on the body. Acupressure stimulates the same pressure points and may be a good alternative for people who want to avoid needles.
Managing Fibromyalgia: Fibro Fog
Many people with fibromyalgia have trouble concentrating, a phenomenon known as fibro fog. While getting treatment for pain and insomnia may help, there are other steps you can take to improve your focus. Write notes about things you need to remember, keep your mind active by reading or doing puzzles, and break tasks up into small, manageable steps.
Managing Fibromyalgia: Stress
Stress appears to be one of the most common triggers of fibromyalgia flare-ups. While it’s impossible to eliminate all stress from your life, you can try to reduce unnecessary stress. Determine which situations make you anxious — at home and at work — and find ways to make those situations less stressful. Experiment with yoga, meditation, or other relaxation techniques. And allow yourself to skip nonessential activities that cause stress.
Does Fibromyalgia Get Better?
Many people with fibromyalgia find that their symptoms and quality of life improve substantially as they identify the most effective treatments and make lifestyle changes. While fibromyalgia is a chronic condition, it does not damage the joints, muscles, or internal organs.
Gentle movements of the ancient Chinese exercise tai chi are one of many alternatives to help elderly people find pain relief.
The movements of tai chi are gentle, graceful, mystical — and a safe way to relieve arthritis pain and gain balance, strength, and flexibility. Tai chi is one of many alternative therapies that can provide relief from pain, possibly letting you cut back on pain medications.
Early mornings in large and small cities in China – and in America’s parks, hospitals, and community centers – people are practicing tai chi. It is an ancient tradition said to have developed in medieval China, to help restore health of monks in poor physical condition from too much meditation and too little exercise.
Chi (pronounced chee) is the Chinese word for energy. In the healing arts, tai chi is used to promote the movement of energy through the body — similar to blood being pumped through the body, explains Cate Morrill, a certified tai chi instructor in Atlanta. Morrill spends much of her time teaching classes to people with arthritis who are often unfamiliar with this practice. “But after five, 10, 15 minutes of tai chi, they report having pain relief.”
Virtually all major health organizations – including the Arthritis Foundation — recommend tai chi because it provides balance of body and mind. It is particularly useful for people with arthritis due to its low-impact nature. If you have arthritis and considering tai chi, be sure to talk with your doctor first, just as you should for any type of exercise program. Then, with your doctor’s approval, give tai chi a try.
“The movements of tai chi keep the body fresh and allow the person to find a freer range of motion in the joints, greater flexibility, better balance,” Morrill explains. Tai chi is often called “moving meditation,” because it is relaxing, because the focus is on breathing and creating inner stillness — quieting the mind, relaxing the body. When people focus on breathing and on the movements, they aren’t focused on their worldly worries.
“Everyday stuff like gardening and cleaning the house — even basic moves like getting in and out of a bathtub – are easier when muscles are strong and flexible, when there is proper balance and body alignment,” Morrill says.
What Happens in Tai Chi Class
Tai chi movements are full of natural symbolism – “Wind Rolls with Lotus Leaves,” “Brush Dust Against the Wind,” and “White Crane Spreads Wings.”
Yet the application of these moves is very practical: “Folks with arthritis in the knees tend to not bend their knees very much when they walk, so they tend to have a stiffer gait. Some tai chi exercise work to increase the knee flexibility,” says Morrill.
For example, in the movement “Wave Hands Like Clouds,” the focus is on the hands, which seem to drift like clouds in the air. But as the hands wave, the rest of the body is in continual slow motion, Morrill explains. The hips are driving the body motion — as one leg bends, the other stretches, then the motion switches to the other side of the body. The arms rotate at the shoulder to strengthen shoulder muscles, which encourages the arms to stretch out fully. As weight is shifted, the body is slightly turned to produce flexibility in the waist and strength and flexibility in side muscles.
This movement may last only two minutes or so; during the hour-long class, participants will complete at least 20 different sets of movements, says Morrill.
Someone with arthritis should not try learning tai chi from a video or DVD, she adds. A class setting, with qualified instructor who has worked with people with arthritis, is essential. “If someone has severe arthritis in the left knee, they may not be able to do moves like someone who has a light case of arthritis. It’s the instructor’s job to modify movement to make it as safe and painless as possible for each student … to select moves that are most appropriate.”
Also, there’s the camaraderie that comes from a class, Morrill tells WebMD. “People with arthritis tend to not get out much, but tai chi classes let them realize there are others in the same situation, so friendships develop, people support each other, they find other people they can share skills with. One might do the grocery shopping because the arthritis in her legs isn’t too bad – and her friend does the cooking.”
Gain Back 8 Years of Youth
According to legend, “if you meditate and do tai chi 100 days in a row, you gain back eight years of youth,” says Morrill.
While many of today’s tai chi movements have roots in martial arts, the goal is indeed therapeutic. Progress is measured in terms of coordination, strength, balance, flexibility, breathing, digestion, emotional balance, and a general sense of well-being.
Tai chi and other types of mindfulness-based practices “are intended to maintain muscle tone, strength, and flexibility, and perhaps even spiritual aspects like mindfulness – focusing in the moment, focusing away from the pain,” says Raymond Gaeta, MD, director of pain management services at Stanford Hospital & Clinics.
Parag Sheth, MD, assistant professor of rehabilitation medicine at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York, saw the popularity of tai chi on a visit to China 20 years ago. “We saw it every morning – thousands of people in the park doing tai chi, all of them elderly,” he says.
“There’s logic in how tai chi works,” Sheth says. “Tai chi emphasizes rotary movements — turning the body from side to side, working muscles that they don’t use when walking, building muscle groups they are not used to using. If they have some strength in those support muscles – the rotators in the hip — that can help prevent a fall.”
The slow, controlled movements help older people feel secure doing tai chi, he adds. “Also, they learn to bend on one leg — to control that movement – which is something you don’t get to practice very often,” says Sheth. “That’s important because, as we get older and more insecure, we tend to limit our movements and that limits certain muscles from getting used. When people strengthen those muscles slowly, when they find their balance, they learn to trust themselves more.”
What Studies Have Shown
A study published in 1997 found that older adults who took 15 tai chi lessons and practiced for 15 minutes twice daily were able to significantly reduce their risk of falls. Since then, several more studies have pointed to the physical benefits of tai chi for the elderly.
One six-month study, a group of older adults who took part in tai chi were about twice as likely to report that they were not limited in their ability to perform moderate-to-vigorous daily activities – things like walking, climbing, bending, lifting. The people in that study also reported better overall quality of life – in terms of bodily pain, mental health, and perceptions of health and independence.
Another study of older adults with arthritis showed that those who took a 12-week tai chi course got around better and had less pain in their legs. Yet another study found that people with arthritis who took a 12-week tai chi class had stronger abdominal muscles and better balance afterward.
A review of four studies on tai chi found that it does not appear to significantly reduce pain or lessen the severity of rheumatoid arthritis. However, it does significantly improve range of motion in the joints of the legs and ankles. Those who got the most benefit reported participating more in their tai chi classes and enjoying them more compared with those who were in a traditional exercise program.
“I’m an absolute huge fan of tai chi,” says Jason Theodoskais, MD, MS, MPH, FACPM, author of The Arthritis Cure and a preventive and sports medicine specialist at the University of Arizona Medical Center.
Any type of motion helps lubricate the joints by moving joint fluid, which is helpful in relieving pain, he says. “Tai chi is not a cure-all, but it’s one piece of the puzzle. What’s good about tai chi is that it’s a gentle motion, so even people who are severely affected with arthritis can do it. Also, tai chi helps strengthen the joints in a functional manner… you strengthen muscles in the way your body normally uses the joints.”
More Alternatives for Arthritis Pain
Many more options can help relieve arthritis pain. These include:
Acupuncture is another Chinese tradition that the World Health Organization has recommended as a treatment for pain. In acupuncture, disposable, stainless steel needles are used to stimulate the body’s 14 major meridians (or energy-carrying channels) to correct energy imbalances in the body, according to Chinese medical philosophy. When the needles stimulate these nerves, it causes a dull ache or feeling of fullness in the muscle.
Western doctors believe that since many acu-points are located near nerves, the needles help decrease pain by stimulating chemicals that block pain, called endorphins. The stimulated muscle sends a message to the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord), causing the release of endorphins (morphine-like painkilling chemicals in our own bodies). This blocks the message of pain from being delivered up to the brain.
This technique is similar to acupuncture, but it uses fingertip pressure rather than needles. Acupuncture actually evolved from acupressure. The pressure of fingertips on tender areas can help relieve pain by dispersing lactic acid that builds up in target areas. It is a safe technique that you can teach yourself.
A chiropractor treats diseases by manipulating the spine and other body structures, based on the belief that many diseases are caused by pressure, especially of the vertebrae, on nerves. Many people believe very strongly in this therapy because they do get pain relief from the manipulations. Check the credentials of anyone administering this therapy.
Massage is an ancient form of pain management and stress relief. Our lives today tend to be stress-filled, and massage is one way to help us relax our muscles and let our bodies be refreshed. As you read this you can probably identify areas of stress in your body. Are your shoulders tense? Is your neck stiff? Are you clenching your teeth? All this tension really aggravates the pain of arthritis. Massage is a way to help us relax and allow the blood to flow naturally through our bodies.
This treatment is based on the concept that the muscles and organs of the body are affected by specific areas of the feet. When pressure is applied to these areas of the soles of the feet, other locations of the body relax.
Floating in a pool filled with Epsom salts in a room with restricted light and sound is relaxing and therapeutic. The combination of relaxation, weightlessness, and the Epsom salts has been documented to relieve pain partly by stimulating endorphin production.
Perhaps the oldest known treatment for arthritis is simply a hot bath to help loosen muscles and joints and relieve pain. People have been going to resorts with hot mineral springs for centuries. Heat can be found in a hot bath, hot pack, or a heating pad. Another method of heat application is hot paraffin. Paraffin baths are simply heated containers filled with melted paraffin and wintergreen oil. Beauty salons use them as a hand treatment, but for arthritis sufferers these baths are a way to get deep heat to the small joints in the hands or feet. After dipping the hand a dozen times to coat it with hot paraffin, you wrap it with plastic, cover it with a towel, and leave it until it is cool. The paraffin baths can be found at medical supply firms.
Cold, wet compresses or ice packs applied to the affected area work better than heat for soothing sharp, intense pain of an arthritis flare-up. Use cold treatment for 10 to 20 minutes but not longer or there could be damage to the skin.
Biofeedback is being taught today by physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, and many types of therapists. You learn several types of relaxation techniques and by attaching sensitive monitors to your body you can see immediately how your body is reacting to your efforts to relax, lower your blood pressure, diminish your pulse rate, change your temperature, or relax your muscles. Biofeedback reinforces your efforts to control your involuntary reflexes. The monitors let you know if your attempts to “tell your body” what to do are working. Eventually people are able to control these bodily processes without the use of the machine. By reducing stress and relaxing tight muscles you may reduce the level of pain and the need for medications.
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS):
This involves the use of electrical stimulation of the nerves to block the pain signals to the brain. It is performed by a professional and is usually done after other methods have been tried and failed. It seems to work best when the pain is in a specific area, such as the lower back. Electrodes are placed on the skin with some gel in the area to be treated. The electrical current is low level and produces a slight, tingling sensation.
Visualization has been shown to eliminate or reduce pain. Hypnotherapists use it to help patients come up with images that help pain become more tolerable or detract attention away from it. Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and imagine that you are in a place that is particularly restful. Bringing up this image at times of stress can be soothing and refreshing.
Like visualization, this method can bring about relaxation and reduction of stress. It can slow the heart rate and breathing, thereby reducing stress. Those who practice meditation regularly are physiologically younger than their chronological age and report decreased anxiety, depression, and tension, and increased concentration and resilience.
Deep breathing is an effective way to relax. Try to find a time when you will not be disturbed. Find a comfortable, quiet place with as few distractions as possible. Lie down, letting your body be as limp as possible, and close your eyes. Begin breathing very deeply, slowly, and rhythmically. Clear your mind of all your problems and distractions. You can concentrate on a word, any word that will help you relax. Pretend that you are inhaling all the positive energy around you, then exhale all the negative. Try it for five or 10 minutes at first and work up to 20 or 30 minutes.