Do your knees crackle and pop? Are your joints stiff when you get out of bed or when you rise from a chair? You aren’t alone. By the time we’re in our 60s and 70s, most of us will experience some joint pain and stiffness. How do you prevent and relieve joint stiffness?
As we age, the connective tissue and cartilage that provide cushioning between the joints wear down and become thinner, leading to conditions such as osteoarthritis that can cause pain and inflammation. Genetics and age are primary factors in joint deterioration, but there are steps you can take to extend the life of your joints and protect knee or hip replacements.
1. Manage your weight
Excess body weight strains joints—particularly knees. Obesity is a significant risk factor for developing arthritis in your leg joints and having major complications with surgery. Every pound of excess weight exerts roughly four pounds of extra pressure on your knees. If you’re 10 pounds overweight—that’s 40 pounds of extra pressure on your knees with every step you take.
Watching your weight also includes avoiding carrying heavy loads, such as grocery bags, and protecting your smaller joints. For example, lift with the muscles in your hands and arms rather than just using your fingers. When standing, use your thigh muscles rather than your hands to push off from a chair.
2. Keep moving
Joints are meant to be used, but if we don’t warm up before exercising and stretch often to avoid getting stiff, we’ll be creaking like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz. For those with arthritis, exercise can be challenging. Instead, choose activities that are easier on your joints. Bike rather than walk, or swim rather than use the elliptical.
Choose activities that also safeguard aging tendons and ligaments. Sports like basketball or racquetball, where you pivot, twist, or stop and turn suddenly, can cause a torn meniscus or ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) in the knee. Repetitive movements like weeding or swinging golf clubs can result in tendonitis.
3. Remember to pace yourself
When you start a new activity, build up gradually to reduce the risk of injury. If you work out too hard too fast, you risk inflaming or stressing joints before the muscles are strong enough to support them. Listen to your body to know when enough is enough. There is no benefit from overuse.
How much is too much? If you experience pain during an activity, stop. If pain or discomfort hasn’t gone away within 30 minutes after exercising, cut back. And if you have arthritis, be aware the pain will often decrease with movement. It’s all about finding the fine line between too little and too much.
Other joint protection tips
- Other exercise tips include wearing shock-absorbent shoes, using appropriate safety equipment such as knee pads or wrist splints, and learning proper techniques such as good swimming form.
- Drink plenty of fluids. Hydration aids joints because it helps with shock absorption and boosts endurance levels. If your muscles tire quickly, you may be dehydrated.
- If you have pain, take acetaminophen (Tylenol) as directed. Applying ice packs and topical analgesics can also help with pain.
- If none of these work, ask your doctor about prescription drugs, cortisone injections, or whether it’s time to consider joint surgery.