Protecting Joint and Bone Health Prevents Pain While Growing Older
Some move just one way, some don’t move at all and some move in all sorts of ways. They hold our skeletons together and allow us to do everything from swinging our leg to kick a ball to bending our fingers to pick up the tiniest of objects.
“Joints are amazing,” says Robert Markus, M.D., Orthopaedic Surgery at Premier Suburban Medical Group. “There are 360 joints, places where two or more bones meet, in the adult body. Joints prevent bones from making direct contact, cushioning the bone ends. Joints that don’t move, like the suture joints in the skull, are known as fixed joints. In orthopaedics, we concern ourselves with the joints that do allow bones to move, and especially the ones that give patients pain.”
A joint isn’t one simple body part. Joints contain cartilage, synovial membrane and fluid, ligaments, tendons, and bursas.
Most people are aware of the basic components of a joint, says Dr. Markus. “Cartilage covers the surface of the bone where it meets the joint and reduces friction during movement to prevent bones from damage. The meniscus is also cartilage, two on each side of the knee, which act as cushions between your thigh bone and shin bone.”
Ligaments support the joint and also limit its movement to protect dislocations and fractures. Dr. Markus explains that ligaments also connect the bones within each joint. Tendons connect bones to muscles that control the movement of the joint.
“Cartilage in particular is known to most people, as injuries here tend to cause pain,” says Dr. Markus. “The term “bone on bone” which many people hear as their knees become more and more painful, is used when cartilage has been torn, ripped, or worn away, reducing or even eliminating that cushion between the femur and tibula. Even if a person hasn’t had an injury themselves, if they watch sports, particularly football and basketball, they are probably familiar with cartilage injuries.”
Unless patients have had an unusual injury or illness, they may not have heard of synovial membrane, synovial fluid or bursas.
Dr. Markus says, “Synovial membranes line the joint and seal it into a capsule while producing synovial fluid, which lubricates the joint to keep it moving smoothly, pain-free. Bursas are sacs between the bones, tendons and ligaments. These are fluid-filled “pillows” that also help reduce friction and help joints move comfortably.”
For many patients, joint problems may have started in their youth. “For patients that have been very physically active, especially in contact sports where players are tackled such as football or hockey, or sports like basketball or tennis that call for a great deal of pivoting while in motion, there can be a history of tears, fractures and more that cause joint pain as they grow older,” says Dr. Markus.
Joint and bone pain can also happen as we move through simple daily activities. Movements such as getting up from a chair, lifting a box to a shelf, turning to fasten a seat belt or bending to tie shoes can be just enough to aggravate a ligament, tear cartilage or inflame a bursa. Wearing high heels, sandals or shoes without proper support can cause problems not only in the feet, but in the joints and bones in knees, hips, back, and more. Patients may develop osteoarthritis that degenerates joints.
“Be aware of the type of pain you’re experiencing,” says Dr. Markus. “After you exercise, your muscles may be sore for the next day or so and that’s normal. But when the pain is in your joint during exercise itself, when pain is not easing after a workout, or when pain occurs as you move through daily tasks like taking a cup out of the cabinet or walking down the stairs, that’s when you need to consult an orthopaedic surgeon to find ways to get relief. Without intervention, the pain will only increase and your quality of life will decline.”
It’s important not to quit moving because of joint pain, explains Dr. Markus. “Building the surrounding muscles can help relieve joint and bone pain. I will typically recommend exercises and physical therapy rather than immediate medical or surgical intervention for joint pain - and when a patient follows instructions, it can make an enormous difference. For example, in the knees, when we strengthen the muscles in the thigh, the quadriceps and the hamstrings, those muscles are better able to absorb the shock of each step we take, taking pressure off of the knee joint itself.” Weight loss may also relieve pain, as research indicates that each 10 lbs. of additional weight a person carries adds nearly 40 lbs of force to the knee with each step.
Maintaining joint and bone health and taking the steps to prevent injuries is important as we grow older. Dr. Markus recommends exercise to help patients build strength, increase joint flexibility and improve balance. “Moderate exercise that doesn’t cause or increase pain is necessary,” says Dr. Markus. “Switch to swimming or cycling instead of jogging or tennis. Take up yoga to become more flexible and work on your balance. Walking at a brisk pace while keeping the arms moving is one of the best ways to improve your bone and joint health - and it will improve your overall health as well.”
He also recommends increasing calcium and Vitamin D intake, especially for post-menopausal women and men over the age of 70. Cheeses, yogurt, sardines and salmon are rich in both nutrients, vital for healthy bones and joints. “Ask your primary care doctor if you should take supplements,” says Dr. Markus. “Remember that your cartilage is about 80% water, so make sure you are staying hydrated all day long, and especially while exercising.”
Smoking and using other tobacco products are also significant barriers to good joint health. Cigarettes, cigars, vaping, chewing and other nicotine products increase inflammation, tightening blood vessels and making it more difficult for oxygen-rich blood to reach joints and bones, particularly when they need to heal from an injury.
Protecting the health of joints and bones as we age helps prevent pain throughout the body, shields us from life-changing injuries and preserves our mobility.