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Arthritis Advice for Seniors

Tips to help reduce pain and improve range of motion

Sarah Charest, OTR/L-CLT's picture
Arthritis Advice for Seniors
Arthritis Advice for Seniors

Arthritis is an inflammation of one or more joints caused by the breakdown of cartilage, the spongy tissue that covers the ends of bones. There are different types of arthritis, but the most common is osteoarthritis, or “wear and tear” arthritis— it occurs most often in the knees, hips, lower back, neck, or joints of the fingers, thumb and big toe. 

Typical osteoarthritis symptoms include pain, stiffness, swelling and difficulty moving the joint. There are a variety of ways to manage arthritis discomfort, and most people tend to use a combination to help alleviate their symptoms. Make sure that you check with your doctor before trying any of these options:

Thermal treatments: Applying heat or cold to the affected joint may help reduce pain and stiffness. Heat is usually helpful for soothing chronic (long-term) arthritis symptoms, and is generally better tolerated by older adults. If your symptoms flare up suddenly — which can be caused by overexertion, for example — ice may be the better choice to reduce inflammation. 

Medications and other pain relievers: In addition to prescription medications, there are a number of over-the-counter medicines that can help to relieve arthritis pain, including acetaminophen, aspirin and ibuprofen. Each has its own potential side effects and risks; you may find that you can tolerate some medicines better than others. Talk with your doctor before trying a new medicine, and make sure that it won’t interfere with any medications you’re already taking. Topical medications that you rub into the skin over the affected joint are also available and may be right for you. Many people seek out holistic treatments, like acupuncture, to improve symptoms.

Exercise: Strengthening exercises can be helpful because building strength in the muscles around the arthritic joint provides stability. Exercise that improves your flexibility and range of motion, like stretching, yoga and Tai Chi, can help reduce stiffness (just be careful not to hold a position for too long, which can lead to stiffness). Low-impact exercise is great for improving your overall fitness. Exercising in water is ideal, because it reduces stress on joints. Exercise can also help you lose weight if needed — being overweight puts stress on joints and increases the risk for flare-ups. Don’t overdo it! Before you begin an exercise program, talk to your doctor.

Joint protection: Splints and braces can help to stabilize an arthritic joint; they can also help you rest the joint, which can be helpful when you’re sleeping. 

Adaptive equipment: Arthritis symptoms can affect your daily life in different ways and to varying degrees, depending on the location and severity of your symptoms. That’s where adaptive equipment can help. These tools can be as low-tech as putting foam around a toothbrush or utensil handle to make it easier to hold, to electric seat “boosters” that make it easier for you to get up from a chair.

Sleep: Research shows that a good night’s sleep can help you recover from a flare-up. Make sure that you’re comfortable in bed: For example, sleeping with a pillow between your knees may be helpful if you have arthritis in your back.

Physical/occupational therapy: When arthritis symptoms begin to impact your quality of life, your doctor may prescribe physical or occupational therapy. Physical therapists provide exercises designed to preserve the strength and use of your joints; occupational therapists can teach you how to reduce strain on your joints during daily activities.

We’d like to hear from you! Living with arthritis? How do you manage pain? Share your experiences with us by commenting below.

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Clinical Supervisor of Long-term Care Occupational and Physical Therapy at Hebrew SeniorLife

Sarah Charest has worked as an occupational therapist at HSL for almost 11 years. Sarah received her bachelor's degree in occupational therapy from the University of New Hampshire, and is certified in lymphedema management. She has a strong interest in geriatrics, and in 2013 presented at the American Occupational Therapy Association's national conference on the occupational therapist's role at end of life in long-term care.  

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