The One Thing You Should Never, Ever Do if You're Living With Arthritis

Woman with arthritis

While adults of any age can get arthritis, it’s a health condition that becomes more common with age. Approximately 47% of adults 65 and older have been diagnosed with arthritis. Being diagnosed with arthritis can feel overwhelming: you’re already experiencing physical pain and you’re likely wondering if it will ever go away and how it might stop you from doing the things you love to do in the future.

These are valid concerns to have, but rheumatologists also say that they can cause people with arthritis to make a mistake that can actually make their health condition worse instead of better. Keep reading to find out what it is and other key facts they want everyone with osteoarthritis to know.

Related: Bend and Snap! Here's an Easy Plan to Keep Your Joints Healthy and Fend Off Arthritis 

How To Know if You Have Arthritis

It’s important to know that there are different types of arthritis, which have different causes. The most common type of arthritis is osteoarthritis, which is a degenerative joint disease, most commonly impacting the hands, hips and knees. The risk of osteoarthritis increases with age and often stems from joint injury or overuse. This type of arthritis is different from rheumatoid arthritis, which is an autoimmune disease and inflammatory condition.

“Osteoarthritis can be due to a number of causes such as age, injury, overuse of a joint, genetics and obesity. It is a degenerative joint disease which occurs when there is degradation of the cartilage within a joint leading to changes within the bone, stiffness, loss of mobility and pain,” explains rheumatologist Dr. Zeba Faroqui, MD.

Related: The 20 Best Foods to Reduce Inflammation and Ease Arthritis Pain

Dr. Faroqui says that, typically, early signs of this type of arthritis include joint pain and stiffness. “Pain is usually brought on by extended activity or towards the end of the day. A person with arthritis may experience swelling in their joints or feel unstable when they walk,” she explains.

Dr. Faroqui says that, ultimately, a diagnosis is made by a doctor, who will likely do a physical exam and examine blood work as well as x-rays. “Labs do not diagnose osteoarthritis but they can be helpful to rule out other syndromes that could present with similar symptoms such as gout or rheumatoid arthritis. X-ray imaging will show narrowing of the joint space or bone spurs in patients with osteoarthritis which will help confirm the diagnosis,” she adds.

According to Dr. Grace Wright, MD, PhD, a consultant rheumatologist in New York City and founder and president of the Association of Women in Rheumatology, symptoms of osteoarthritis can start as early as one’s 30s, so it’s important to see a doctor if you are experiencing any pain, especially if arthritis runs in your family. Often, she says, there are lifestyle adjustments that can be made to reduce symptoms. For example, if someone has obesity, formulating a diet and lifestyle plan for weight loss can help.

Related: The #1 Unexpected Habit That Helps With Managing Arthritis 

What Not To Do if You Have Osteoarthritis

One mistake Dr. Wright says that many people diagnosed with osteoarthritis make is stopping all forms of physical activity. “Joints are spaces between bones that are supported by muscles, tendons and ligaments. When the muscles become weak, there’s no support around the joint. That’s why exercise is important. You never want to stop exercising because once you lose muscle strength, there is nothing supporting the joint,” she explains.

The key, both doctors say, is knowing how to exercise safely, in a way that supports joint health. “A person with osteoarthritis should avoid activities that have a high risk of causing injury and those that require excessive pounding or twisting motion of the joints. Such activities may include running on uneven ground, high-impact exercise and lifting heavy objects,” Dr. Faroqui warns.

She adds that high-impact exercise can worsen osteoarthritis in weight-bearing joints such as the knees and hips. “This includes activities like tennis, basketball, soccer or football,” she says, explaining that avoiding these types of exercises decreases the risk of injury to cartilage and progression of osteoarthritis, which will lead to less pain and preserved mobility.

That being said, not exercising at all has been linked to making osteoarthritis worse while exercising as little as one to two hours a week has been shown to improve symptoms. So what type of exercise should someone with osteoarthritis do? Dr. Wright says that core-strengthening exercises are beneficial because they help make back muscles stronger, which supports the spine—a part of the body commonly impacted by osteoarthritis. Walking, running (as long as it’s on an even ground), cycling, yoga and even gardening are all forms of movement that can help improve osteoarthritis.

Being diagnosed with arthritis doesn’t mean the end of moving your body. It’s quite the opposite! Talk to your doctor about the types of exercise that are best for you as well as other treatments that can improve your symptoms.

Next up, here are the answers to the most commonly Googled questions about arthritis.