As a holistic physiotherapist I observe that too many people worry that once a joint becomes sore, it will never improve. Luckily though, there are some effective, evidence-based strategies you can use to help your joints age gracefully. If you have ever been told you have osteoarthritis (OA) in a joint, such as your knee, you may be reluctant to exercise as you’re worried it will worsen your arthritis. This is a common belief, which leads to inactivity, weakness and ultimately even more soreness.
Did you know OA is almost always only in one area of a joint? The rest of your joint is primed and ready for strengthening.
Take, for example, a knee with osteoarthritis. It is very unlikely that every surface within your knee has damaged cartilage and arthritis. And I can say this after looking at hundreds of patient x-rays! Instead, almost everyone with OA has just one or a few small areas where the cartilage integrity has changed. That means almost every other part of your joint has healthy cartilage.
So let’s forget about the area with the damaged cartilage, we can’t fix that. Instead, let’s focus on the area where your cartilage is healthy and strong. These are the areas we can strengthen, priming the cartilage to manage the load transmitted through your joint for years to come! I explain below exactly how you can do that through strength.
Choose low-impact exercises that boost cartilage health.
Gentle exercise through a joint can actually help increase the health of the cartilage, helping it become more tolerant to load. A great example is cycling for knee pain. This gentle and repetitive loading of the knee joint gently nourishes the cartilage, helping it become more able to manage force. This is really handy for daily life, making things like getting out of a chair or walking up stairs, easier and less painful. Twenty minutes on a stationary bike can be considered the same as taking pain relief medication. It helps ease soreness and improves the health of your remaining cartilage.
Research has shown that during exercise the body secretes a hormone named sclerostin which helps deposit calcium into the bone cells making the bones stronger.
Key takeaway: Your joint health relies on movement and graduated loading that builds the capacity of the bone and cartilage to tolerate load. This applies to any joint, whether it contains areas of OA or not.
Start with Isometric exercise
Isometric means an exercise where your muscles don’t change in length; they’re static. Isometric exercises aren’t effective at building strength, but they’re a great place to start. If you have had a sore joint for a while, your muscles around that joint probably don’t ‘switch on’ very well. This sort of a situation if left unattended for long changes the walking pattern and leads to more serious joint troubles. By ‘switching on’ or activating the joint’s stabilising muscles, you prepare your joints for strengthening. An example of this would be looking at weak quadriceps or the muscles of the thigh as a reason for knee soreness, the quadriceps start to feel alive through a static squat within minutes! The same group of muscles are then strengthened through stationary biking.
A great example of anisometric exercise for the knee joint is a static squat or wall sit. Instead of doing an active squat or lunge which just causes soreness in your knee, an isometric contraction helps activate your knee stabilising muscles without pain. If you’re just beginning your journey towards healthy joints, try ahigh squat instead of sitting low.