For the more than 43 million arthritis sufferers, exercise can help minimize pain. Seemingly counterintuitive, exercise helps reduce common arthritis symptoms including weak muscles, stiff joints reduced mobility, and lost vitality. Exercise helps promote overall health and fitness, which gives arthritis sufferers more energy, controls their weight, decreases depression, and improves sleep. It also helps stave off other health problems such as heart disease and osteoporosis.
There are more than one hundred types of arthritis, with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis being the most prevalent. All forms of arthritis are characterized by joint and musculoskeletal pain. There are more than 100 joints connecting the body's 206 bones. The bones are tied together by ligaments and capped with cartilage. Cartilage acts as a shock absorber. In osteoarthritis, which affects 20.7 million Americans, the cartilage breaks down, or is destroyed, causing the bones to rub together. Rheumatoid Arthritis, affecting 2.1 million Americans, is an autoimmune disease; the patient's immune system attacks the lining, or synovial membrane, of the joints. Other forms of arthritis affect another 20 million Americans.
In the past, doctors advised arthritis patients to rest and avoid exercise. Now research shows that an appropriate exercise program is very important in avoiding the complications caused by inactivity. Doctors recommend a combination of the following types of exercise:
- Flexibility or stretching - these improve range of motion and are usually recommended to be performed daily, even during flare-ups, when pain is more acute.
- Muscle conditioning - Strength and endurance benefits can come from working with raising an arm or leg against gravity, lifting weights, using weight machines or elastic bands. Doctors generally recommend this type of exercise every other day, but recommend that they be avoided during flare-ups.
- Aerobic Conditioning - Aerobic exercise improves heart, lung and muscle functioning. Swimming and aquatics are frequently recommended for arthritis patients. The Arthritis Foundation's web site has a searchable Arthritis Chapter Directory, which includes area water exercise programs. Other recommendations may include walking, bicycling, or playing golf.
If you have arthritis, consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program to find out which forms of exercise are best suited to your condition. Your doctor may refer you to a physical or occupational therapist who can show you proper techniques and precautions. Remember to obtain pre-authorization from your health plan (Indemnity) or a referral (PPO and HMOs) for these services.
As with any health condition, be sure to follow your doctor's orders:
- Take medications as prescribed.
- Eat a variety of foods including lots of vegetables, fruits and grain products.
- Use salt and alcohol in moderation.
- Maintain an ideal weight.
- Use assistive devices when needed, such as a brace or cane.
The following GIC health plans offer arthritis management programs for members:
Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Arthritis Management Program participants have access to a Certified Rehabilitation Nurse Specialist who will provide support, education and clinical collaboration between the Harvard Pilgrim Care Management Team and the Specialty Care Provider. See their web site or call 617-509-1280.
Health New England's Living Well Program is a six-week course program focusing on self-management techniques such as developing a personalized action plan which can include improving nutrition and physical activity. Call 1-800-842-4464 ext. 3300.
This information provided by the Group Insurance Commission.