Myths and Facts About Joint Pain
There are lots of misconceptions about arthritis joint pain, but what's really going on? We'll separate out fact from fiction.
By Felissa Benjamin
Medically Reviewed by Ed Zimney, MD
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Some days 63-year-old Leslie Gluck can't get out of bed. She has had rheumatoid arthritis for more than 20 years, and the pain can be almost unbearable. But in Southern California, where Leslie lives, the dry heat feels soothing to her swollen joints. Is it really soothing, or is that effect just in Leslie's mind? What are the real facts on what causes, cures, hinders, and helps arthritis and joint pain?
Joint Pain Myth: All joint pain is arthritis.There are more than 50 types of arthritis, but having a swollen, achy joint does not mean you have one of them. "You need to be properly diagnosed and treated," says Elaine Husni, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Center Orthopedic and Rheumatologic Institute, at the Cleveland Clinic, "You may not even have arthritis, but rather a soft tissue injury or bursitis." Only a visit to a doctor will tell you for sure.
Joint Pain Myth: Popping knuckles causes arthritis.Sure, we've all heard this one before. Mom always said, Stop cracking those knuckles or you'll end up giving yourself arthritis. But according to Mark A. McQuillan, M.D., associate professor in the Department of Internal Medicine, Divisions of General Medicine and Rheumatology, at the University of Michigan, popping of the knuckles is just a vacuum phenomenon. When you pull on your knuckles, a bit of excess nitrogen gas that was dissolved in your blood literally makes a popping noise. So no, you won't get arthritis from knuckle popping, though you may annoy those around you.
Joint Pain Fact: Dry, warm weather helps relieve joint pain.According to Dr. McQuillan, arthritis patients feel an uncomfortable pressure in their joints on days of high humidity and low barometric pressure, especially just before a storm. A drier climate means a minimum of pressure. "Before you plan a major move, however, it's good to test out drier weather for a few weeks, to see if it works for you," says Dr. McQuillan.
Joint Pain Myth: Exercise can aggravate joint pain. Exercise is beneficial for everyone, with or without arthritis, says Dr. McQuillan. Yet only 13 percent of men and 8 percent of women with knee osteoarthritis get the minimum recommended amount of weekly movement. If you are in pain, forgo intense exercise and try some light stretching, or switch to workouts that are less taxing on the joints, such as the stationary bike or swimming. "The most important thing is just to get more movement in your life. Remember: Use it or lose it," says Dr. Husni. "The more exercise you do, the better your range of motion."
Joint Pain Fact: Diet can be a factor in preventing arthritis.Yes — and no. Maintaining a healthy weight can help ward off certain types of arthritis. "Keeping close to your ideal weight will be protective against osteoarthritis," says Dr. McQuillan, because obesity has been linked to osteoarthritis of the hip and knee. However, diet has not been proven to have a direct link to the cause or prevention of other forms of arthritis.
Joint Pain Myth: There's no way to prevent arthritis-caused joint damage.Arthritis medications — including COX-2 inhibitors, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), anti-TNF compounds, corticosteroids, and disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) —canhelp reduce inflammation, relieve painful symptoms, and prevent joint damage. In patients who delay treatment, "we can see drastic erosions in joints in as little as three to six months, which don't grow back," says Dr. Husni. It's best to see your doctor to determine a treatment plan that can help you maintain your quality of life and better manage your condition.
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