Since I started writing this column we’ve been bouncing around with various thoughts on arthritis, activity and other issues of joint health. In all the excitement I fear we may have missed a few things, so on that note, we will put things to right.
As mentioned, one of the most impressive things I saw as a medical student was a person walking normally on two artificial hips. This was no small miracle as, so long as your arthritis is in your knees and hips, you are in luck. Unfortunately, some folks are - as they say - “riddled” with arthritis. For these souls, one or two joint replacements only makes life minimally better. They might have disease in many joints - the wrists, ankles, spine, etc. - that are not always amenable to surgery. It was some 10 years into my practice in New Hampshire that I finally uttered these words to a patient: Have you considered moving someplace warm? Low tech and old-school though it is, walking across an icy parking lot in a Northeast winter can be an athletic event, and certainly not always kind to your joints. Warm air and water aerobics daily can be an excellent treatment for much of what ails you. Today, let's take a look at some of the other low tech options for arthritis patients.
The next low-tech arthritis treatment I’d like to mention (that you will no doubt roll your eyes at) is: a cane. That’s right - a support you can put in your hand and take some pressure off the painful leg. Putting a cane or walking stick in the hand opposite the leg that hurts can relieve that side of significant stress; it may be just enough to keep you below the level of pain. Remember, we talk about arthritis as a “chronic disease” in that it will not go away (actually it tends to get worse) but it must be “managed."
If you have lung disease and during the spring it gets particularly bad, for example, you might go on a short course of steroids. This does not mean you have to be on them full time. If you have a bad hip and will be traveling to Seattle to see your brother, using a cane while negotiating the airports and lines might get you to Safeco Field in a much better mood. Crutches are another alternative and will get you more sympathy, but some folks get fussy when you throw them down to wrestle a 10-year-old for a foul ball. Worrying about how you might look to your friends of saying you feel old using a cane does not make a lot of sense to me. First of all, you probably are old. Secondly, your friends will not be there at night while you toss and turn due to pain. Don’t let ego and pride get in the way of enjoying your life. Another advantage to the cane is that my colleague Gregory House has made them almost "hip" - and a ready prop for Baby Boomers air guitar riffs at the Bobby Sherman concert (yikes!).
Taking this a step further, hiking and walking poles are completely acceptable for all ages. For those experienced hikers dealing with painful joints, I recommend strapping the poles to your knapsack for the ascent and then take them out for the downhill, when the stress to your joints is the greatest. Once you get used to the feel you might find yourself using them up and down. Ideally, do not use just old ski poles but specific hiking poles that can adjust to the slope. These tend to be a bit kinder to your hands and chew-up the trail less.