14 exercises for people in pain
When you’re in pain, the last thing you may want to do is exercise.
But people with conditions like rheumatoid arthritis are more likely to keep symptoms under control if they exercise at least a little bit every day, says Andrew McDonnell, supervisor of outpatient physical therapy at Scott & White Sports Medicine & Rehabilitation Clinic in Round Rock, Texas. Exercising also helps the heart, lungs and brain.
Always consult a physical therapist before starting an exercise regimen so you don’t do anything that worsens pain. Here are 14 types of exercise that may help you move and feel better.
--By Amanda Gardner
Slow it down
If you’re in the middle of a painful flare, you definitely don’t want to do anything that’s going to increase the inflammation.
Generally, experts recommend that you continue any exercises you can, perhaps substituting range of motion and stretching for more rigorous strengthening. Or you could concentrate on an area of your body that isn’t having the flare.
In some cases, “it is appropriate for the person to discontinue exercises for a short period of time,” says McDonnell. But not for long as this may become a vicious cycle, leading to stiff, weak joints.
If your joints are aching, taking to the water may be the way to go. “The buoyancy takes weight off of the joints,” explains McDonnell.
Swimming is also good for the upper extremities, helping to keep the elbows flexible. Water exercises could take the form of regular lap-lengths, water aerobics, or just walking in the pool.
A 2012 study found that aquatic exercises conferred small-to-moderate benefit on various forms of pain, including low back pain, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Whether it’s a stationary bike in your living room or a ride outdoors, biking provides not only weight-bearing benefit, but can also release the feel-good hormones known as endorphins.
People with arthritis of the knees may have some difficulty with biking, says McDonnell, so make sure the seat is at the right height. In this situation, a recumbent bike might be your best bet.
“It’s good because the seats are anatomic and help support the spine,” says Robert Irwin, MD, associate professor of clinical rehabilitation medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
Weight lifting can be useful for people in pain, including those with rheumatoid arthritis, but such a program needs to be practiced in moderation,” says Dr. Irwin.
Don’t think of weight-lifting as something that can turn you from a 90-pound weakling into the Incredible Hulk. Instead, think of it as taking a daily vitamin.
“When we were younger, we wanted to look good in a bathing suit or have big biceps,” says McDonnell. “As we get older we have to look at exercise as a kind of medicine.”
Walking can be difficult if you have foot and knee symptoms, but if you can do it, this type of exercise can strengthen the muscles around the knee, which actually helps protect the joint.
“If the thigh muscles or the quadriceps are in good condition, shock in the legs gets deflected away from the knee,” McDonnell says. “If the muscle is in poor condition, it can’t absorb the shock and it gets transmitted to the joint and causes inflammation.”
But just walking from your car to the front door may not be enough to reap the benefits of this particular exercise, as you’re unlikely to get any cardiovascular benefit.
Trace the alphabet with your feet
According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 90% of people with RA will have symptoms in the foot and ankle.
Needless to say, this can make many forms of exercise difficult. McDonnell shows his clients how to trace the alphabet in the air with their foot. Start with an “A” then a “B” and use your whole foot, not just your big toe.
This will help preserve range of motion in the ankle which helps maintain function in the joints and reduces pain by relieving stiffness. “It also helps maximize nutrition to and lubrication to the joint,” says McDonnell.
Squeeze your hands
Maintaining range of motion is just as important in your hands. More motion means that stress is distributed over a wider percentage of the joint cartilage, ensuring that one area won’t be unduly burdened, says McDonnell.
Simply squeezing your hand, opening and closing it or touching the tip of each finger then sliding it down to the base of the same finger can maximize range of motion and perhaps make simple everyday tasks like opening a jar easier.
More than one study now points to the effectiveness of this ancient Chinese martial art in improving arthritis pain.
One, in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, found reductions in pain, stiffness, and fatigue in a group of 33 fibromyalgia patients who practiced Tai Chi twice a week for two weeks.
Tai Chi harnesses both the mind and the body and can help build strength and endurance. What’s more, it can easily be practiced at home, in a class, or in the park.
This fitness system was developed by Joseph Pilates more than 100 years ago to build strength in the abdomen and back.
Not only is it strengthening, says Dr. Irwin, it also promotes balance, perhaps enough to decrease the risk of falling and sustaining a fracture.
Pilates has been shown to help people with low back pain as well as fibromyalgia.