Last updated: Mar 17, 2009
Suffering from achy knees, cracking elbows, or sore shoulders? Youre not alone: Women have a 30% higher risk of chronic joint pain than men. Truth is, some 21 million Americans suffer from pain-ful joints—and they spend $32 billion each year on a wide variety of remedies. Which ones really work? Heres a quick look at the best ways to keep your joints feeling good at any age.


The 30s

Start slow and stretch. Youre psyched to hit the courts and try out those new tennis shoes? Stretch and warm up for at least 5 minutes, and then limit yourself to 15 to 20 minutes of activity at first. You may be young and active, but that doesnt make you immune to problems like tendinitis (inflammation of the tendons that connect muscle to bone) and bursitis (inflammation of the small sacs that cush-ion the spaces between your bones, tendons, and muscles). Playing an intense game of tennis when you havent warmed up or hit the courts in a while hikes the risk, says Scott Zashin, MD, an arthritis expert at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. For some basic stretches, check out (LINK)Health.com/stretches.

Follow the signs. If you notice swelling in your joints or morning stiffness that lasts for more than 30 minutes, see a doctor, Dr. Zashin says. You could have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an inflammatory joint disease in which the immune system begins attacking healthy joints. It affects 1.3 million Americans, 75% of them women, and onset usually occurs in the 30s.

Lupus and fibromyalgia are two other chronic conditions marked by joint pain that afflict more women (many at a young age) than men. If your pain persists for more than a month, or if its causing you to take more than the recommended dosage of your regular pain reliever, see a rheumatologist. Early diagnosis and treatment of RA may help prevent joint damage and disability.

Stay strong. If youre into pumping iron or jogging regularly, your joints (even if they ache from time to time) will thank you in the long run. Weight-bearing exercises that build muscle strength help maintain joint health by limiting how much your joints wobble, says Ronald Anderson, MD, a rheumatologist at Bostons Brigham and Womens Hospital Center for Arthritis and Joint Diseases. Exercise can also help reduce joint pain linked to pregnancy, which puts a lot of stress on the pelvis and lower back. A woman whose back is strong before she gets pregnant is more likely to avoid pain during pregnancy, Dr. Anderson says.The 40s

Lose it. Carrying around extra pounds heightens your risk of developing osteoarthritis, especially in your hips and knees, which bear the brunt of the weight. Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage that cushions your bones wears out, causing pain and limiting movements that used to be easy. It often hits first in your 40s. “But people who maintain a reasonable body weight are less likely to wear out their joints,” Dr. Anderson says. In a recent study, Swedish researchers found that women with a body mass index (BMI) of about 24 or higher were more likely to undergo total knee or total hip replacement. Go to (LINK)Health.com/bmi to check your BMI; shoot for a number between 18.5 and 24.9.

Dont light up. Smoking decreases the amount of oxygen in your blood and lowers your estrogen level, which begins to decline in your 40s. Both conditions hinder bone growth and can contribute to disc degeneration in your spine, a prescription for back pain. Smoking can also increase the risk and severity of rheumatoid arthritis. A recent study found that patients with RA who quit smoking had fewer swollen and tender joints.

Go easy on pain pills. Researchers at Brigham and Womens Hospital found that people who routinely take ibuprofen have an increased risk for heart attack and stroke, compared with those who take other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like naproxen, which is found in Aleve. Next time youre in pain, try heat or cold to ease it first. “Some people ice after exercise, and then if they have discomfort during exercise theyll use heat,” Dr. Zashin says. He recommends over-the-counter heat wraps; they can work for hours. Another smart choice: acupuncture, which hes been using for 10 years to ease osteoarthritis in patients spines and knees. Find an experienced acupuncturist.The 50s plus

Keep moving. Its far too easy to quit working out as you get older, but thats exactly what you shouldnt do. Recent studies show that regular exercise can reduce arthritis-related pain and disability. The key is to stick with workouts like yoga that reduce stiffness and maintain flexibility in trouble spots. A recent study from Johns Hopkins found that yoga reduced the number of tender and swollen joints in people with RA. Another good option is aquatic exercise, which puts less stress on joints.

Eat cherries. Tart cherries may reduce osteoarthritis pain. The benefits are thought to come from antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, called anthocyanins, found in the fruit. Dark red and purple foods like blueberries and red cabbage are also rich in anthocyanins.

Try Tai Chi. Twice-weekly sessions of this ancient Chinese exercise, which involves gentle movements and meditation to enhance balance and flexibility, reduces pain in people with severe knee osteoarthritis, according to a study presented at a recent American College of Rheumatology scientific meeting. The benefits lasted for almost a year. Dr. Zashin thinks this activitys ability to relieve stress explains the results. At the same time, simply asking your joints to try something new and unusual—whether Tai Chi or Qigong—will help them stay healthy now and in the years ahead.