Hearing from a doctor or health care practitioner that your knee is “bone on bone”, or that “wear and tear” has caused your knee to become arthritic or degenerated sounds pretty scary, right?
This message is often followed by the news that there’s nothing you can do and surgery is inevitable. That’s also pretty scary. And depressing. And disempowering.
When you have knee pain, and you’re told by the experts there’s damage to the joint, it makes sense to stop what you’re doing and protect the knee from more damage. If your activities like running, walking or tennis wore away your knee, why wouldn’t you want to save what you have left?
Except the messages of wear and tear don’t give you the whole story, and lead to many misconceptions about what causes arthritis and what to do about it.
The good news is arthritis is less mechanical in nature, and more biological. What this means is the structural changes we experience and see on imaging are not created by wear and tear at all, but by a very complex process involving hundreds of chemicals, hormones, DNA, RNA, and a bunch of stuff that’s above my pay-grade!
So…what can we do about knee osteoarthritis?
Keeping in mind that knee OA is more than just about the knee, here are a few actions you can take to support you in getting back to doing the things you love:
- Move (I’m sure you knew I was going to put movement #1!) Exercise and movement will not make your knee arthritis worse. Walk if you can. Ride a bike or use a rowing machine. Do Pilates, yoga, or whatever gives you a sense of confidence. Mix up your program with cardio, strengthening, balance and coordination activities. Start gradually and work up. Expect to have some occasional bumps in the road as you increase your time, distance and load. It’s OK–you’re adaptable and you can recover.
- Change your story about OA. Yes, OA is an abbreviation for osteoarthritis, and OA also refers to “old age”. Change your story about both! Getting older does not inevitably lead to “falling apart”, and maintaining an active lifestyle will not wear out your joints. The fact is that staying active is necessary for joint health, especially if you have arthritis. Many people with osteoarthritis continue to run, hike, dance, ski, play tennis, and live fully despite having awful looking X-rays and despite being “old”. Age and pathology are only a part of the experience of pain, and there are many things you can do to optimize your life and diminish pain. Replace “wear and tear” with “motion is lotion”.
- Nourish yourself with plenty of clean water, deep breaths, good food, fun people, books, concerts, art, music, meditation, grandkids, gardening, furry friends, and whatever else feeds your body and soul. Your internal fitness is a huge component of your experience of life, and is often ignored or overlooked. Pain is a complex, multi-system experience and keeping our overall health a priority goes a long way to decreasing pain. A great question to ask is, “How can I be healthier?”
- Progress isn’t linear. Despite our best efforts, progress is never a straight upward line. I have to remind myself of this constantly! Progress is up and down, back and forth, with dips and drops and sharp rises. As long as you’re taking consistent action over time, you’ll improve. Stay the course!
- Pick one thing at at time to focus on and make it a priority. We’re pretty terrible at multi-tasking, despite thinking we can do it all! Each month, pick one thing to prioritize–clean up the diet, get better rest, walk 4 times a week, drink more water, drink less alcohol, or do early morning breath work. Once that routine is integrated into your life, pick another thing to focus on. Over time, you’ll create a lifestyle that your future self will appreciate.
You are strong and adaptable, and knee arthritis doesn’t have to limit your choices in life.
If you’re up for a really wonderful, nerdy read about metabolic health and how it relates to joint pain, I highly recommend checking out this article by Orthopedic surgeon Howard J. Luks.
As always, I wish you vibrant health and a lifetime of choosing the things that move you. If you’d like to connect, you can reach me here.