Top experts in rheumatism and arthritis agree that most of the world’s arthritis victims can lead better lives with less pain if they regularly follow doctor-guided programs involving:
- Aspirin or a medically approved substitute.
- Exercises that are as easy as flexing your fingers or stretching your toes.
- Warm baths, hot towels, and other heat applications.
- Rest periods for swollen joints.
“That’s the commonsense approach to arthritis,” said Dr. Robert Lightfoot Jr, rheumatology section chief of the Medical College of Wisconsin in the United States.
There are individual treatments and exercises for different types of arthritis – but even your family doctor might not know what these simple measures are. That’s because most medical schools give only a few hours of instruction.
Although arthritis is a major cause of job absenteeism and costs many millions of dollars in lost man-hours every year, there are few specifically qualified rheumatologists either in the US or Australia.
Experts say you should see a doctor if you have severe pain or a less severe pain that lasts more than 10 days. If a doctor has determined that you have arthritis, you can get relief by following this guide, based on information supplied in America by Tufts-New England Medical Centre, the Arthritis Foundation, the National Institute of Arthritis, Metabolism, and Digestive Diseases and leading rheumatologists.
Aspirin is usually the best drug for relief of pain and swelling. It is recommended for most arthritis pain but should never be used for gout. Take up to 12 tablets a day, three tablets at a time, but only under a doctor’s supervision. To reduce the chances of stomach upset, take them soon after eating.
More expensive aspirin substitutes are not usually as effective as aspirin and will do nothing to reduce swollen joints.
Many other drugs are now available that are good for some types of arthritis but not for others. They are available only – and should only be used – under a doctor’s supervision.
Almost everyone who has arthritis needs regular but gentle exercises to prevent muscle deterioration and to prevent their joints from “locking up” and to reduce pain.
Your chances of becoming crippled can be reduced by muscle-building exercises and most patients will function better with a simple, home exercise program.
Exercises should not be done without a doctor’s or therapist’s approval if the pain is severe or if the joint is already “locked.” Do not exercise beyond the point of pain.
It’s essential to balance exercise with rest. And some forms of arthritis, like housewife’s knee, require complete rest of the joint for a few days, which will usually eliminate the pain.
It is helpful to rest completely for up to 30 minutes during the day, making sure to keep your arthritic joint warm to prevent stiffening. Also, you should try to organize chores to minimize strenuous activity like walking up and downstairs.
Pain is often worse in the morning so go easy when you first get up and start the day with a warm bath.
A warm bath is also good before exercising. You can try using hot, wet towels around painful muscles and joints as well as heat packs, which can be purchased at pharmacies, to get temporary pain relief. Limit heat applications to 20 minutes.
Many different types of arthritis strike various joints of the body. Here are simple home measures that can be of help in relieving arthritis pain in specific joints.
WRIST AND HAND
- Slowly and gently open and close your fingers several times in a bowl of warm water.
- Placing the palms of your hands on a table, spread the fingers and press down gently to stretch them.
- Placing the palms on a table, gently lift each finger, then all the fingers together.
ANKLE, FOOT, AND TOES
Anyone with painful arthritic feet can strengthen the ankle, foot, and toe muscles by doing these exercises 10 times each:
- Lying flat, rotate the foot clockwise and then anti-clockwise.
- Lying flat, bend the foot forward, and then backward. You will get even more relief if you do these first two exercises while sitting in your warm bath in the morning.
- While standing, try to grasp the carpet with the toes and then relax them.
- Push the ball of the foot against a fixed bar or bed rail while lying flat. Alternately bend and spread the toes.
- It’s important to get properly fitting shoes. Don’t wear shoes with more than a 2cm heel.
Minor knee pain due to arthritis is very common, particularly among athletes or overweight people who spend a lot of time on their feet. Don’t ignore it. See a doctor for a diagnosis.
The muscle in front of the thigh can become thin and weak in a short time and make the condition more painful. Bicycle-type exercises or other strenuous activity can worsen the condition.
Here are some preventive measures you can take to keep the muscle strong:
- Lose weight if you’re overweight.
- Lie flat on a bed, keep the affected leg straight and tighten the muscle on top of the knee for a count of five. Repeat 10 times.
- Repeating the same exercise, lift the tightened leg up and hold it for a count of five. Slowly lower the leg, keeping it straight.
- When the leg is strong enough, repeat the same exercise with a 1kg sandbag on the ankle. Increase to 2.5kg.
Many forms of arthritis strike the elbow, but there are some simple exercises which often give relief:
- Stand with the arm straight down, palm forward, and grasp a roll of bandage or cloth in your hand. Bend arm at the elbow up toward you while squeezing the roll. Relax hand while straightening the arm. Do not use this exercise if you have arthritis in the hand as well as the wrist.
- Repeat the exercise with the palm facing behind you. Do each exercise 15 times, two or three times daily.
A painful stiff neck is another arthritic condition that often responds to home treatment. Pain at the back of the neck spreading down to the shoulder blades is the usual symptom. Neck pain will usually respond to these home treatment measures:
- Lie flat on your back at night with one pillow beneath the neck.
- Stress and anxiety worsen the condition so examine your lifestyle for emotional problems that may be linked to your pain.
- If you spend long hours at a desk, your pain may be caused by leaning over from a chair that’s too high. Adjust the height so that you don’t have to hold your head too far forward.
Many different types of arthritis can cause shoulder pain, which is usually felt when you raise your arm forward or above your head while dressing.
Here are exercises you can do for 15 minutes, two or three times daily:
- While standing, bend over at the waist and dangle your arm straight down with the fingers straight. Now gently make small movements in a circle with your arm, gradually increasing the size of the circle.
- Stand up straight with your arms at your side. Bend the elbow at a right angle and turn your arm out to the side, and then back in front of you. Now try reaching across your body and touching the opposite shoulder.
- Lie on a bed with arms at your side. While keeping your painful arm flat on the bed, move it to shoulder level and then over your head. When it loosens up and the pain decreases, try lifting the arm straight out in front of you toward the ceiling and then swinging it backward over your head.
- While standing, grasp a broomstick horizontally with both hands spread apart and raise it as high as you can. Still holding the broom, swing your arms from side to side.
- While lying or standing, grasp both hands behind your neck and pull the elbows apart.
For arthritis of the hip, try these self-treatment steps after seeking medical advice:
- Limit walking and stair climbing.
- Use a rubber-tipped cane on the side opposite the pain.
- Lose excess weight.
Hip exercises should be prescribed only by a doctor.
Arthritic backaches that are minor in the morning but get worse as the day wears on will usually respond to home treatment. Try these measures:
- Sleep on a firm mattress. A 1.5cm (¾in) board beneath your mattress will make it firmer.
- Don’t sit or stand for too long.
- Avoid jumping out of bed, or rising suddenly from a chair.
- Keep your back straight when lifting things, letting the knees and hips carry the load.
Back exercise should be prescribed by a doctor.