Dorothy Foltz-Gray, Special to Lifescript
Published December 20, 2010
If you suffer from chronic arthritis, natural therapies can ease inflammation and acheyness. Read on for 10 tips to tame the pain today...
When you’re wracked with arthritis pain, even the smallest movements can be a challenge. Untreated, discomfort seems to grow by itself, as your body and mind rebel against the hurt.
“Once pain starts, it’s a bullet train to worry, stress and anxiety,” says Jane Pernotto Ehrman, M.Ed., a behavioral specialist and “mind/body coach” at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.
Then you end up dumping more of the inflammatory hormone cortisol into the bloodstream, which exacerbates arthritis, she says.
A whopping 76.2 million Americans suffer from pain; more than half have some form of arthritis, according to the American Pain Foundation.
The right medications can help. But because body and mind are inseparable when it comes to pain, natural therapies like exercise and relaxation also do wonders.
Here are 10 ways to halt the hurt, even before you open your medicine cabinet.
1. Take a mental holiday.
How it’s done: Begin this exercise, known as guided imagery or purposeful daydreaming, by lying or sitting in a comfortable place. Then focus on your breathing.
“Imagine you’re in a calming place – the beach, a forest, a garden, a waterfall,” Ehrman says.
“Rest there, letting the sunshine warm away your discomfort. Let the pain drip out your fingertips and the bottom of your feet.”
Sit that way for 10-15 minutes, repeating the exercise throughout the day. If your mind wanders, gently pull yourself back to the restful spot.
Why it works: “The exercise helps the body and mind release tension and fatigue, and helps you re-energize,” Ehrman says. “The relaxation softens muscles and tissues.”
2. Draw a deep breath.
How it’s done: “Lie down or sit in a position where your head can rest, and do slow, deep breathing from the abdomen,” Ehrman says.
“Count to four on your inhale and then exhale very slowly to six counts, repeating a word like ‘peace,’ ‘calm,’ ‘love,’ ‘softness,’ or visualizing an image that brings you comfort. If your mind wanders, come back to focus on the breathing.”
Do this every day for 10 minutes.
Why it works: “Deep breathing sends oxygen to the brain and body,” Ehrman says. “It also quiets the mind and stops inflammatory hormones from pouring into the bloodstream.”
How it’s done: Meditation, or quiet contemplation, can take many forms, Ehrman says. You’ll want to do it for at least 10-15 minutes a day.
“Go off to a natural setting, or stare out the window at your garden or a snowfall,” Ehrman suggests.
Imagine healing energy throughout your body. Visualize the medication you take as helpful, and mentally send it to painful areas. Imagine, too, that your body tolerates the medication well.
Another option: Sit with your eyes closed, listening to music, and clear your head of thoughts.
Why it works: As you meditate, your breathing slows and deepens, relaxing your muscles. It also distracts you from pain, Ehrman says.
4. Practice gentle yoga.
How it’s done: “Find a yoga class that has a meditation component, or look for a meditation class that includes yoga stretches,” suggests James Carson, Ph.D., a pain psychologist and assistant professor of anesthesiology at Oregon Health and Science University.
Carson cautions against demanding yoga classes, which can worsen pain. Find an instructor experienced in working with people who have arthritis.
As little as half an hour per day will bring benefits, Carson says.
Why it works: Yoga helps safely stretch your muscles. The increase in balance and strength also helps to keep you from straining during physical activities.
In an OHSU study conducted by Carson, fibromyalgia patients who practiced yoga at least 40 minutes a day for eight weeks reduced their pain levels by 24%. They also increased levels of strength, balance, relaxation and acceptance of their difficulties.
“This class wasn’t just poses or stretches,” Carson notes. “We strongly emphasized meditation and breathing.”
5. Shed pounds.
How it’s done: There’s no shortage of diets out there, but most boil down to taking in fewer calories, says Thomas Vangsness, M.D., chief of sports medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine.
“Stay away from McDonald’s, unless it’s a salad. Stay away from butter and sugar,” he says. Eat more whole grains, fruits and vegetables.”
(Check out Lifescript’s Diet Center for more weight-loss advice.)
Why it works: Taking weight off painful joints relieves some of the pressure that makes them hurt.
“If you’re carrying 10 extra pounds, you’re putting 100 pounds more force on your knee with every step,” Vangsness says. “If you lose 10 pounds, you’ll feel better.”
6. Stretch yourself.
How it’s done: Take yoga or Pilates classes to help maintain a full range of motion in your joints.
For hips and knees, you can ride an exercise bike four times a week for 20-30 minutes – enough to work up a sweat, Vangsness says.
Vangsness also recommends this on-the-spot hip stretch: Lie down and pull one knee up to your chest. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat with the other leg. Do a few repetitions each day.
Another stretch: Lie down. Put a towel in a loop around your foot and pull your leg up so your knee is straight. You’ll feel a stretch in the muscles at the back of your leg and hip. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat with the other leg. Do a few repetitions each day.
Why it works: “If your joint is tight, you don’t have full motion,” Vangsness says. “In an arthritic knee, tightness will make the knee wear like a misaligned wheel.”
That causes inflammation and pain as well as more tension. Tight muscles increase stiffness too.
7. Beef up your muscles.
How it’s done: Work with a physical therapist or trainer experienced in treating arthritis, to set up a strength-training regimen.
Vangsness suggests you join a gym or YMCA, and either lift weights or do other resistance exercises. Make sure you learn to do each exercise with proper form.
Why it works: Strengthening the muscles in the front and back of your legs allows them to act like a brake. When your foot hits the ground, that relieves pressure on your knee, Vangsness says. And overall strengthening reduces fatigue.
8. Make a splash.
How it’s done: Low-impact exercise like swimming – especially in a heated pool, where the warmth will relax your muscles – is a great way to get fit without putting extra pressure on your aching joints.
If you don’t have access to a pool, a stationary bike can also provide a low-impact workout.
Why it works: “Pounding causes pain,” Vangsness says. “But exercise like swimming lubricates the joints.”
More lubrication means less friction between joints – a boon for people with arthritis.
9. Warm up and cool down.
How it’s done: “Before exercising, take a warm bath or put a heat compress on the painful spot for about 10-15 minutes,” Vangsness suggests.
After a workout, cool painful spots with an ice pack or bag of frozen peas. Wrap either in a towel and hold in place for 10-15 minutes.
Why it works: Warming up increases blood flow to your muscles, making them less stiff and reducing the risk of injury, Vangsness says.
Icing down afterward helps prevent inflammation and swelling.
10. Consider acupuncture.
How it’s done: Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese therapy involving the placement of tiny needles at specific points.
“It’s a system of healing that works with the energy in the body,” says Beth Kohn-Converse, Dipl.Ac, an acupuncturist at Henry Ford Health System’s Center for Integrative Medicine in Detroit.
Kohn-Converse usually sees a patient once or twice a week for about six weeks, and then evaluates how that person is responding.
Why it works: “Acupuncture stimulates the release of endorphins and encephalin, which are relaxing and pain-relieving substances,” Kohn-Converse says.
The therapy also improves circulation around the joints.
“Any time you puncture the body, you send more blood flow to that area,” Kohn-Converse says.
She also recommends combining acupuncture with customized Chinese herbal therapies – taken orally or applied topically – that help reduce inflammation and pain. Your acupuncturist may be able to suggest those that would be best for you.