Common Joint Problems, Solved
It's never too early to protect your knees, shoulders and other connective parts from daily wear and tear. Learn how to head off problems and heal the aches you may already have.
Neck, shoulders, knees and toes: Joints—or, simply, any area where two bones meet—hold us together and keep us moving. Their seamless hinging and gliding allow us to walk down the street, bend to tie our sneakers, grab a loved one's hand—and so much more.But all that work makes them prone to crackles and pops now and then: In fact, about a third of adults have reported joint pain over any given month, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And women are more likely to have instability in their joints than men, most likely thanks to the higher amount of estrogen in our bodies, explains Neil S. Roth, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. In fact, more women than men in the over-45 age group say they have joint pain, a CDC report states.
Thankfully, there's a lot you can do to avoid aches, sprains, stiffness and other common joint issues—from standing up straighter to adopting some simple stretches. Read on for all the right moves that will keep you limber enough to take on power yoga, rock climbing or whatever's still on your bucket list. Next Page: Problem #1: Sprains
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Problem #1: Sprains
The lowdown. This tearing or stretching of ligaments is most common in ankles. While sprains make up a large percentage of all sports injuries, you can get one from something as innocuous as tripping over a tree branch. Women are slightly more susceptible once they hit the big 3-0, a 2010 study found.
What it feels like. Pain, swelling and bruising that starts immediately after the injury, along with difficulty moving or putting weight on the affected joint. You may also hear a "pop" when the sprain occurs.
Rx. You need RICE right away: That's rest, ice (up to five times a day for 20 minutes at a time), compression (with a brace or bandage) and elevation (prop your limb up above your heart), says David Geier, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at the Medical University of South Carolina. Taking an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory, like Advil, can ease the ouch. Most mild sprains heal within a week. If you don't see significant improvement within 72 hours, or you're in excruciating pain, see your doctor to rule out a fracture or complete ligament tear.
Next Page: Problem #2: Tendinitis
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Problem #2: Tendinitis
The lowdown. Unlike a sprain, tendinitis—inflammation or irritation around a tendon—generally creeps up on you. "I see it a lot when patients jump into a new activity, or go back to one after an absence," says Gerard Varlotta, DO, professor of rehabilitation medicine at the NYU Langone Center for Musculoskeletal Care. Often-affected joints include elbow, knee, shoulder and heel (in the Achilles tendon).
What it feels like. Tenderness and swelling around the joint; sharp pain when you move. Symptoms usually ease with rest and worsen with activity.
Rx. Ice the area for 10 to 15 minutes four or five times a day and take an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory to reduce swelling. But the best treatment is R & R. That means scaling back on activity considerably. "Basically, if it hurts, don't do it," Dr. Varlotta says. If the condition doesn't improve within a week—or gets better, then comes back—see your doctor. He can refer you to a physical therapist, who may teach you strengthening exercises or use procedures like ultrasound to help heal the injured tissue. (If you're offered cortisone shots, stick to one or two—they relieve pain but also weaken tendon tissue, Dr. Varlotta warns.) You should feel better in about six weeks.
Next Page: Problem #3: Osteoarthritis
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Problem #3: Osteoarthritis
The lowdown. You've got OA when the cartilage around your joints wears down, causing pain as bone eventually rubs against bone. It's the most common form of arthritis—about 27 percent of women ages 45 to 54 have it, according to the CDC. You'll notice OA most in the knees, feet and hands.
What it feels like. Pain, swelling and stiffness, especially after you've been sitting or when you get out of bed. You may also notice a crunching sound and feeling from the joint as you move.
Rx. There's no cure for osteoarthritis, unfortunately, but there's plenty you can do to reduce pain. First, see your doctor, who can refer you to a physical therapist who'll teach you exercises to strengthen the muscles around your joint and take pressure off of it, says Jennifer Hootman, PhD, an epidemiologist with the Arthritis Program at the CDC. "Your doctor can prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs, if OTC medications haven't been working, or inject hyaluronic acid into the joint, which cushions it, relieving pain," Hootman says. If PT, medication and regular activity don't help, joint-replacement surgery may be the best fix.
Next Page: Problem #4: Rheumatoid arthritis
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Problem #4: Rheumatoid arthritis
The lowdown. RA occurs when your immune system goes into overdrive and attacks the synovium—the tissue that lines your joints—causing joint and cartilage damage. It affects up to 5 percent of women, and it seems to be on the rise. "It's a mystery as to why, but a mix of factors may be involved: genetic susceptibility, low vitamin D levels, environmental factors like smoking or exposure to viruses like the Epstein-Barr virus," says Robert Keenan, MD, an RA specialist at Duke University.
What it feels like. Unlike the osteo variety, RA causes symmetrical pain (say, in both thumbs), most often in smaller joints such as those in the feet. You might also have stiffness.
Rx. Targeted prescription medications can alleviate this condition. The most common ones are disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) such as methotrexate, and biologics such as abatacept. If these aren't effective, a new class of small molecule drugs called Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitors may be prescribed. Lifestyle tweaks can also help: A 2012 UCLA study found that yoga improved mood and lessened fatigue in younger subjects.
Next Page: Problem #5: Fibromyalgia
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Problem #5: Fibromyalgia
The lowdown. Fibromyalgia—which affects about 10 million people in the United States, as many as 90 percent of whom are women—is a disorder that causes "tender points" on body parts such as your back, arms, shoulders and legs. While it's a disorder of the soft tissue, it often presents itself as joint pain. "We're not sure why it's so much more prevalent in women—one thought is that hormones like estrogen make some women's brains more susceptible to sensations of pain," says Abby Abelson, MD, chair of the department of rheumatic and immunologic diseases at the Cleveland Clinic.
What it feels like. Constant fatigue coupled with muscle aches, twitching or burning that may feel like the flu. Sleep problems are common, too.
Rx. If your doctor suspects that it's fibromyalgia, she'll examine you and may run a bunch of blood tests. "It's usually a diagnosis of exclusion, after ruling out other conditions, like hypothyroidism," Dr. Abelson says. If you've had at least seven tender points for at least three months, along with other symptoms such as unexplainable tiredness, it's most likely fibromyalgia. Three drugs—duloxetine, pregabalin and milnacipran—have been FDA-approved to treat the disorder, but that's not your only recourse. Regular exercise (20 minutes to an hour at least twice a week) and/or talking to a therapist on the phone once a week seems to reduce pain, notes a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine.