While it may seem paradoxical, for those with so much osteoarthritis pain that it hurts to move, exercise is actually beneficial and will help manage the pain.
Exercise helps manage osteoarthritis pain in a number of specific ways, including:
- Flexibility and stretching exercises can expand or preserve the range of motion and elasticity in affected joints and thus relieve the stiffness that leads to pain
- A consistent low impact aerobic exercise program can aid in controlling weight, which in turn lessens impact and stress on the joints
- Repeated motion of the joint is necessary to maintain normal joint health
- Aerobic exercise that increases heart rate produces endorphins, the body's natural pain relieving hormone, which in turn lessens the pain associated with osteoarthritis
- Maintaining normal muscle strength is necessary to control impact to the joints. Good muscle strength acts like shock absorbers around the joints. This is true for the spine as well as for other joints.
The cartilage damage in joints affected by osteoarthritis (also referred to as spinal arthritis or degenerative arthritis), and the attendant inflammation, can generate an extreme amount of pain, making everyday movement difficult. Understandably, the motivation and energy to exercise when suffering osteoarthritis pain can be elusive, and many osteoarthritis sufferers avoid any unnecessary movement that might jar joints.
Pain Management to Make Exercise Tolerable
For many, it is necessary to first address the pain undertaking exercise in order to make movement more tolerable. Gradual joint motion through increasing range at first in an unloaded manner will tend to reduce the pain of normal activity.
The variety of options available to control pain is extensive, including:
- Heat therapy prior to exercise to warm up stiff muscles and joints and make them more easy to stretch
- Ice therapy or cold packs after exercise to cool swollen joints
- Over-the-counter medications, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (e.g. ibuprofen), to alleviate pain and reduce inflammation
- Prescription anti-inflammatories and pain medications, including corticosteroids, COX-2 inhibitors, to treat both acute and chronic pain
- Elastic supports, sometimes worn for several hours, are often effective.