Arthritis is a way of referring to inflammation or disease of the joints. It is estimated that 54 million adults have been diagnosed with arthritis. This number is expected to increase to 78 million by 2040, according to the Arthritis Foundation (1).
Arthritis can occur in one or many joints. Symptoms of arthritis include swelling, pain, stiffness, and reduced range of motion. These symptoms can range from mild to severe and come on for brief periods of time or be more chronic. While arthritis can remain stable for years, it can also worsen over time.
Severe arthritis can be painful to the point that it interferes with walking and other activities of daily life. It can also result in physical changes to the joint. Bone spurs, or extra bone growth, may occur where the cartilage has worn down and there is an increase of inflammation and friction in that area. A visible example of these changes is when the knuckles appear knobby during more advanced stages of arthritis. However, these bone spurs can occur in places where the changes might only be visible on an x-ray.
While there are 100 types of arthritis, the most common type is osteoarthritis, which occurs when the cartilage, or slick coating at the end of bones, wears away, resulting in pain and stiffness. Osteoarthritis is also sometimes referred to as degenerative arthritis and typically occurs in the fingers and weight bearing joints, such as the knees, hips, and lower back.
Multiple factors can contribute to the development of osteoarthritis, including:
- Genetic predisposition: In some people, the bones develop in a way that the cartilage wears away faster. Researches have also found that certain genes are higher in people with osteoarthritis.
- Weight: Additional weight places more pressure in the hips and knees, which can contribute to cartilage breaking down in the joints. Additionally, research has found that being overweight correlates to a greater likelihood of having osteoarthritis in the hands. It is thought that this is due to an increase in inflammatory chemicals related to having more fat tissue (2).
- Overuse or injury to a joint: Injuries such as fractures or ligaments tears and repetitive movements can cause osteoarthritis. Muscle imbalances and corresponding dysfunctional movement patterns can also play a role, because it is more likely that repetitive forces will placed on one joint during movement.
The second most common type of arthritis is rheumatoid arthritis, which is also known as inflammatory arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis occurs as a result of an abnormal immune system response, which causes in inflammation and swelling in the joint lining. Over time, this inflammation leads to damage in the cartilage and bones.
While it is not fully understood, potential contributing factors to rheumatoid arthritis include:
- Gender: 70 percent of people diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis are women and it is thought that this might be because of female hormones.
- Genetic predisposition: Certain genes have been associated with an increased risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.
- Weight: While it is unknown if being overweight increases the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, two thirds of people with rheumatoid arthritis are overweight. Additionally, excess bodyweight known to cause an increase in inflammation, which can exacerbate symptoms (3).
- Environment: Stress, emotional trauma, and exposure to certain chemicals and pollutants are all thought to play a role in developing rheumatoid arthritis (4).
If you suspect that you might have arthritis, it is recommended that you consult your medical provider. They will examine you for visible symptoms of arthritis, such as joint swelling and may order tests to confirm a diagnosis. X-rays can show bone spurs or if there is a loss of cartilage, because there will be a narrowing of the space between the bones of a joint. A blood test can indicate rheumatoid arthritis and joint fluid analysis can help determine if there is inflammation or infection.
At this time, there is no way to reverse osteoarthritis or cure rheumatoid arthritis. However, there are medications, which can reduce symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and slow or stop the disease from progressing. Additionally, symptoms can be managed through lifestyle changes, physical therapy, and in more severe cases medication or even surgery.
How Pilates Can Help Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms?
Research suggests that Pilates can be an effective way to reduce pain and improve quality of life for people with arthritis. A small study conducted in 2015, found that men with rheumatoid arthritis who consistently practiced for eight weeks experienced a significant decrease in pain when compared to the men in the study who did not practice Pilates (5).
Additionally, Pilates can improve movement patterns and help develop muscular strength and balance. This can reduce the stress and repetitive forces placed on the affected joints, and in turn reduce pain and discomfort. It can also improve flexibility, which may reduce feelings of stiffness related to arthritis. If a teacher has experience working with clients with arthritis and is educated in therapeutic techniques, they can help pick the right exercises and level of intensity to help you build strength without exacerbating symptoms.
Finally, because Pilates emphasizes breath and body awareness, it can reduce feelings of stress and promote mindfulness. This is important for managing arthritis symptoms, because research suggests that increased mindfulness can reduce the experience of arthritis related pain (6).
Over a year ago, the spouse of the Cardiovascular Surgeon I work for recommended that I try McEntire Pilates for my neck pain. The inflammation in my fingers, lower back and neck created pain to a point where I was feeling sick most of the time. I used to fly often for my work and when I would get to the hotel, my thumbs were so inflamed I would need to put them on ice. With the exception of surgery, I thought that I had tried everything -- physical therapy, yoga, nutrition and medicine to relieve the symptoms of my rhuematoid arthritis. There were days that the dispair of not getting better overwhelmed me.
After working with McEntire Pilates for just over a year, I whole-heartedly believe in the science of Pilates. The foot work and release in my hip flexors has provided much relief in my body and I notice that I can go a few weeks and sometimes almost a month without taking any medication. There are days when I still don't feel like moving, but the McEntire team really listens and understands my pain to help me through it. When I finish a session, there is a noticeable difference in the way I walk and feel - limber and strong. I believe that the Pilates work that I am doing has saved me from needing surgery on my neck and the confidence that I can move through the symptoms of pain.
-- Sharon, McEntire Pilates Client