Seven ways to ease arthritis pain

By: National Arthritis Awareness Program Sep 12, 2011

September is arthritis awareness month. Here are some tips to help make the pain of arthritis easier to live with.

Even if you don’t live with arthritis yourself, you probably know someone living with arthritis and battling pain on a regular basis. People don't talk about arthritis or realize how serious it is, but the disease affects 1 in 6 adults – that’s 4.2 million people living with the disease in Canada.

Many people with arthritis find it difficult to get started on an exercise program because of pain - but exercise is actually an important part of a successful arthritis treatment plan. Research shows that most types of physical activity do not cause or worsen arthritis. In contrast, a lack of physical activity is associated with increased muscle weakness, joint stiffness, reduced range of motion, fatigue and overall reduced physical fitness.

In addition to improved physical health, exercise has many psychological benefits. Pain can seem more pronounced when we are unhappy or upset and exercise can help reduce depression. Additionally, it can improve self-esteem and self-confidence, improve the ability to relax, improve mood and wellbeing, and promote a good body image. Exercise also provides a good outlet for dealing with stress and anxiety.

Before beginning a new exercise program, it is a good idea to speak with your doctor or healthcare provider to determine the most appropriate exercise or activity for your needs and capabilities. Also, be aware that during arthritis flare-ups it is important not to over-stress and over-work joints, which may cause more pain. For this reason it is important to speak to your doctor about exercise and the types of exercises most suitable.

 If you live with arthritis, there are a range of exercises that are valuable for you, such as:

  • Range-of-motion exercises that involve taking joints through their full range of movement in order to maintain maximum use. Some examples include stretching and include yoga and Tai Chi.
  • Aerobic (endurance) exercises raise the heart rate. Exercises in this category include low-impact aerobics or aquatics classes (pool exercise classes), swimming, and walking.
  • Muscle strengthening exercises help to keep muscles strong and prevent bone loss. This type of exercise includes activities such as weight training.
  • Recreation or lifestyle exercises are activities such as golf, tennis, cycling (including riding a stationary bike), or walking (outside or inside on a treadmill in a local recreation centre or gym). Weight bearing exercises, such as walking, can also prevent bone loss.

A physiotherapist trained in arthritis is the ideal person to recommend a safe and effective exercise program for you. 

If you haven't been active for some time, begin a new workout regimen slowly. It is best not to launch into an exercise program without a careful plan of action and it is essential to avoid starting out with high impact or overly strenuous workouts. There is no hurry. In fact, overdoing it at the start could lead to injury—stopping your exercise program before it even begins. Gradually try to increase the intensity, complexity, and duration of your exercises as you get stronger and more confident. Also, try to avoid rapid, sharp movements and repetitive exercises. Work on matching your level of exercise to your physical abilities, and tailor your workout to protect your joints.

Seven ways to beat arthritis pain and get started on your exercise program:

1. Try to choose a type of exercise, or an exercise program, that you enjoy. It will be much easier to stick to the program if you like what you are doing. Most types of activities are helpful for people living with arthritis, so feel free to do your favourite things such as walking, swimming, golfing, or gardening. Exercise doesn't have to be strenuous or boring to be good for you.

2. Community centres can be a terrific resource. Flip through the lists of classes offered at your local community or aquatic centre to find activities that best suit your interests and physical abilities.

3. You may find that having a partner to exercise with will be more motivating. Research tells us that people are more likely to stick with exercises if they bring along a friend or family member.

4. Sometimes, having a detailed list of activities and realistic goals will help motivate you, so it may be useful to get a referral to a physical therapist to create an appropriate exercise regimen that suits you and your body. Also, keeping an exercise log can help you and your therapist monitor your progress.

5. For some, assistive devices such as splints or orthotics may be helpful for protecting your joints while you exercise. An occupational therapist can be a good resource.

6. Try setting a firm goal and then rewarding yourself when you achieve it. For example, set a goal of swimming 5 laps. When you reach that goal, reward yourself, and then set a new goal of swimming 10 laps. Rewards can be anything that is meaningful to you: setting aside time for yourself, treating yourself to a massage or a good book, or going out for a meal with friends.

7. Acknowledge your effort. Be proud of yourself for taking an active role in your health care.

In 2009 - 2010, Arthritis Consumer Experts (ACE) and The Arthritis Society of Canada, created the first comprehensive national arthritis awareness program in Canada. With the program slogan "Arthritis is Cured! (if you want it)/Guerir l'arthrite! (la solution vous revient)," the NAAP positively promoted interest and conversation about arthritis with the public and healthcare professionals, providing greater insight into the severity of the disease and information on how to access the arthritis information and support network.

For NAAP Year Two, ACE is partnered with the Arthritis Research Centre of Canada (ARC), Canada's largest and leading clinical arthritis research centre. As the number one reason a person over the age of 65 visits their family physician, arthritis diagnosis and management is critical for Canadian healthcare professionals and the wellness of people living with it. Along with key national arthritis community partners across Canada, NAAP Year Two will continue to expand the conversation and raise arthritis awareness with patients, their families, and healthcare professionals.