Seniors, Osteoarthritis and Physical Exercise

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Winter Aches and Pains, Osteoarthritis

Winter, the time for beautiful snow and white panoramas, also brings with it a lot of aches and pains, especially for seniors. Osteoarthritis is a disease where cartilage, which is a natural cushion between the bones, is worn down in the joints. This disease will affect most seniors to some extent by the age of 70. In fact, osteoarthritis can make its debut in old age from accidents and trauma that occurred in one’s youth and can often be seen on x-rays long before it causes pain to the body. Common symptoms are pain, swelling and stiffness, especially after getting out of bed in the morning. Osteoarthritis most commonly affects weight-bearing joints such as the feet, ankles, knees, hips and spine, but it can also affect the neck, shoulder, wrists, hands, fingers and toes. Seniors that are overweight tend to suffer more, as their joints have to bear much more weight than they were created for.

Exercise, Physical Therapy and Water Therapy

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The main concern in treatment is to keep the joints open and flexible. Otherwise the joints become calcified, will no longer move and will become more stiff and painful. This is a major cause of disability in seniors.  Exercise, especially stretching, plays an important role in maintaining the flexibility of the joints. Proper exercise also helps to strengthen muscles that surround the bones. Physical exercise also improves blood circulation, helps maintain proper weight, improves self-confidence and promotes relaxation and better sleep.  Physical therapy, especially swimming and water therapy are considered to be among the best non-drug treatments.

Water therapy – also called aquatic therapy, is very relaxing and reduces weight put on the joints. A qualified aquatic therapist teaches various physical exercises to people in a pool which is usually heated. In the pool seniors find themselves able to do exercises more easily and without pain than what they experience when they do out-of-water exercises. This also produces a lot of good emotional feelings. Seniors feel young again.

Land Based Exercises

There are many exercises that can help to alleviate the symptoms of osteoarthritis. However, it is imperative to learn how to do them from a qualified physical therapist, as not all exercises are suitable for everyone and in fact can sometimes do more harm than good. Doctors and physical therapists know which exercises are beneficial and which ones should be avoided when treating osteoarthritis. The Arthritis Foundation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have online lists of recommended physical activity programs for treating osteoarthritis.

Pre-exercise Treatment, Deep Heat, Hot Springs and Sulfur Pools

Applying deep heat can also give relief and help to clear up painful inflammation. This is best done with a hot water bottle over cotton flannel (the hot water bottle should not directly touch the skin). Extra virgin olive oil or castor oil can also be massaged over the affected joints before applying flannel and the hot water bottle. This is excellent pre-exercise treatment and will make it easier to move the joints with little or no pain.

Many people with osteoarthritis claim to find relief in hot thermal mineral springs and sulfur pools. However, seniors who suffer from blood pressure or cardio vascular problems should not immerse in hot sulfur pools without consulting a doctor. Initially the very hot water lowers blood pressure and this is dangerous for someone on blood pressure lowering meds.

Physical Exercise Safer than NSAIDs

Physical exercise can actually make improvements in treating osteoarthritis rather than simply masking the pain with meds. Also, most of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) commonly used to treat the pain of osteoarthritis can have serious side effects, especially in the elderly, like causing gastrointestinal bleeding and ulcers. NSAIDs can raise blood pressure and cause salt and water retention that leads to heart disease. NSAIDs also can cause side effects to the central nervous system (CNS) like headaches, dizziness and confusion. Some seniors also experience noises in their ears. As if this is not enough, NSAIDs can also cause or worsen kidney and liver disease. In spite of this, most NSAIDs are sold over the counter with no need for a doctor’s prescription and in fact many doctors do not even know their patients are taking NSAIDs.


In conclusion physical exercise should be considered as a first rather than last resort in treating the pain and stiffness of osteoarthritis.


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