How do I keep my joints healthy for years to come?

Joint health, An article by Sarah Eby, Physiotherapist. 

As a Physiotherapist, this is a question I get frequently. It’s a common story: joints start to get stiff and achy as we get older, joints don’t recover as fast from injuries as they used to, or we start to develop joint pain during sports or our basic day to day activities.

Can you relate? If so, I am here to shed some light and instil some hope.

You can promote healthy joints throughout your body in two primary ways:

Through movement and strength.

Joint health

Our joints, all of our joints, are meant to move. They are built so that movement brings fresh blood flow and lubrication to the cartilage and joint surfaces to keep them smooth and healthy. The muscles and ligaments around our joints stay strong and malleable by stretching and contracting as our joints move through their full range of motion.

Joints are built to move, withstand load and compression, and adapt to the stresses that we apply to them throughout our daily movements.

What if my joints start to get stiff and achy? Shouldn’t I rest them so they don’t become more painful?

If you have had an acute injury or trauma, or are experiencing sharp pain with specific movements, then there may be a need for rest and recovery.

However, if there has been no trauma, it is likely that your joints just need to move more. It’s the old adage “move it or lose it” – our bodies adapt to the stresses that are placed upon them, so if you spend your days sitting at a desk or hunched over looking at your phone, your body with start to adapt to the limited range of motion or movement that you are regularly exposing it to and start to stiffen up. The cure is simple – move more. Figure out which movements feel the most stiff, limited or difficult, and slowly start to do more of that particular movement.

For example, one of the most common complaints I hear is about stiff hips. If this is the case for you, you could start each day by pulling your knees into your chest and then rotating your hips in a circular motion each morning before you even get out of bed. You’ll be surprised at how fast your hips start to feel less stiff and achy throughout the day.

The reason this works is that when you move your hips this way each morning, you are sending a message to the body that you require your hips to have a full knees to chest bend, and full rotation, and the joints will start to adapt. The cartilage will get compression and lubrication on all of its surfaces and stay healthy and supple for any movement you throw at it.

When joints get stiff or start to be painful our instincts are to stop moving them, which is often the opposite of what we need. Movement is medicine for our joints.

It’s hard on my joints to do a deep squat, run a marathon or lift heavy weights, right?

Wrong.

I have heard this time and again – and here is my answer: there are no “bad” movements or activities, just poor preparation.

Many of my patients have reported someone telling them they should stop doing x, y or z activity (often that they love doing) because it is harmful or because it is causing them pain.

Again, if you’ve had a trauma, surgery or illness that is affecting your joints then heed these warnings, but if you are clear of all these things, then let me give you some examples to demonstrate my point.

Yes, if you have never run a day in your life and you suddenly decide to start training for a marathon, without any knowledge about proper footwear, how to safely progress your distance or cross training (ie. separate strength training of the muscles that you use for running), then you are setting yourself up for injury. But, if you do your research, join a running group, strength train and invest in good footwear, then you will properly prepare your body and your joints for the stresses that running places upon them (and could crush that marathon goal of yours)! Running in and of itself is not harmful, but jumping into long distance running without the proper preparation could be hard on your joints.

In the same way as running – taking up yoga and suddenly doing repetitive deep squats, when you haven’t done more than squat down to a chair in years, could cause pain and inflammation in your knee joints.

And suddenly deciding to become a power lifter and dead lifting 100-200 lbs without first practicing how to do a proper deadlift without any weight, and then slowly increasing your weight incrementally, will put undue stress and strain through your lumbar spine, hips and shoulders.

Our joints will adapt to the load and movements they are given – but the process is not instantaneous. Problems arise, injuries occur or “harm” can be done to our joints when we try to do things that we have not properly prepared for.

Muscular strength is another big component of joint health. The deep muscles around our joints ie. the core muscles in our spine, the rotator cuff in the shoulder, and the glutes in the hip, are there to increase joint stability, maintain good alignment and promote functional joint movement. These deep muscles also protect the joints (the bones and cartilage) from compressive or shearing forces that could cause injury. You want to keep them strong!

Our larger muscle groups, such as our biceps/triceps and quadriceps/hamstrings, are meant to create large joint movements in our body – bending the elbow and bending the knee joints respectively, while our deep muscles fine tune these movements and protect the joints as they move. Both types of muscles are important for joint health, working in unison to create joint mobility and stability.

This is why Pilates is such a fantastic form of exercise.

It takes you through movements that involve your entire body, moving your joints through healthy ranges of motion, and works your core and the deep stability muscles surrounding your joints.

It is one of the best things you can do to keep your joints healthy for years to come.

Joint health is complex, and joint pain is not always clear cut. If you think you may have an injury or pain that needs attention or diagnosing, feel free to contact me at sarah@rootphysio.com or 519-757-7668 for a complimentary 10-minute consultation.

Written by Sarah Eby, Physiotherapist and KW Art of Fitness Client 

More about Sarah

Sarah Eby

Sarah is a Physiotherapist, Yoga Instructor, movement enthusiast and is in love with all of the classes she has been taking at KW Art of Fitness since moving back to Waterloo a few months ago. After years of studying and working in Toronto, treating a wide variety of patients in busy downtown clinics, Sarah decided it was time for a change – time to move “back home” and time to set up her own practice, Root Physiotherapy, in Uptown Waterloo.

Her vision was to create a physiotherapy practice where people receive quality, one-on-one care from a skilled Physiotherapist who has their best interests at heart; and to get to the root cause of your issues, so you can move well and be well for years to come.

When Sarah isn’t working, you can find her taking a Pilates or yoga class, hiking somewhere, cooking at home or spending time with her family and friends.

Learn more about Root Physiotherapy, click here. 

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