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Your Guide to Avoiding Joint Pain

Every day, you punish your shoulders, knees, hips and wrists more than you realize. Here's how to stop the abuse.

By Linda Melone | April 29, 2013

Joint pain becomes more common with age, as years of physical stress, from lifting and pulling to tugging and typing, take their toll on shoulders, knees, elbows, hips and wrists

We rely on cartilage to be our natural shock absorber. When healthy, it protects bones and allows them to glide over each other. But cartilage often gets worn down and damaged over time, says occupational therapist Karen Jacobs, a clinical professor at Boston University. When you feel a joint, such as the knee, "give out" on occasion, it's not something to shrug off as typical. It could be a sign that cartilage is no longer gliding smoothly, or the result of a buildup of fluid in the joint (familiarly known as water on the knee), and should be checked by your physician.

(MORE: Replacing Old Joints Can Improve Your Love Life)

Some joints may flare up more than others, Jacobs says, but no pain should be ignored. Key joints work together with others in what's known as a "kinetic chain," in which one out-of-kilter part can affect many additional parts of your body. When your elbow aches, it can impact your back and wrist, just as a creaky knee can strain your ankle, hip and back.

Joint trouble doesn't have to be inevitable, though, if you follow these expert tips for protecting your weakest links.

Shoulders

Lugging a heavy handbag every day or hauling a huge suitcase on trips can strain the chain of shoulder, back and neck muscles, Jacobs says. Follow these guidelines to ease the pressure.

  • Always carry heavy items close to the body.
  • Instead of schlepping one heavy suitcase when you travel, take two lighter bags that you can balance, one on each side of the body.
  • Push a rolling suitcase in front of you instead of pulling it from behind.
  • If you carry an over-the-shoulder handbag, choose one with a diagonal strap that crosses in front of your body. Regularly empty it of all unnecessary items, like coins, papers and makeup, and clip your cellphone to your waistband or keep it in a front pocket.
  • If you carry a purse by hand, use one with a short handle and switch hands often.
 
Knees

The best thing you can do for your knees is maintain a healthy body weight, says Dr. Thomas Schmalzried, medical director of the Joint Institute at St. Vincent Medical Center in Los Angeles. Here are his other recommendations:
  • Healthy knees benefit from regular exercise and stretching. "Joints are nourished by movement and loading resistance," Schmalzried says.
  • Always wear appropriate, supportive shoes for the activity at hand, and avoid high heels whenever possible.
  • Runners should choose shoes with good arch support, a stiff counter (back support) and an inner sole that distributes cushioning.
  • If you have to stand for long periods, whether in line or on a bus, don't remain stationary. Keep moving by walking in place or simply bending and flexing.
  • Wear kneepads or sit on a short stool while gardening.
  • Stand with good posture — your ears, shoulders, hips and knees should line up — and sit straight as well.
 
(MORE: Stop Slouching: Poor Posture Leads to Poor Health)

Elbows

If you're feeling aggravation in an elbow, says Sara Crain, a physical therapist with Mercy Hospital in St. Louis, you can give the joint a break by relying instead on the stronger muscles of the shoulders and upper arms.
  • When hauling groceries, use large cloth totes with straps that can rest on your shoulders.
  • Instead of carrying one large load, break things down into several smaller pieces.
  • On the phone, change hands frequently during long conversations. Even better: use the speakerphone option or a hands-free device to avoid "cell phone elbow," the numbness or tingling in your little finger caused by continually bending your elbow to hold a phone to your ear.
  • Tennis elbow doesn't just affect tennis players. It can be caused by any activity that requires repetitive twisting of the wrist, like using a screwdriver or painting as well as constant computer use.
 
Hips and Back

The best advice for relief depends on the kind of discomfort you're experiencing and what part of your daily routine is causing it, says physical therapist Rachael Resch of Synergy Physical Therapy in Ashland, Ore. "The best way to sleep with back pain varies on the diagnosis, whether it's disc pain, osteoporosis or chronic or acute pain." But in general, the following tips may help.
  • Keeping your wallet in a back pocket can cause numbness in your lower back. Carry a lighter wallet or keep it in your front pocket or bag.
  • If you wake with hip or back pain, it's time for a change. Try different sleep positions, such as on your back with a pillow under your knees, or on your side with a pillow between your knees. But you should also assess your mattress and replace it if it's not adequately soft or supportive, or is worn down.
  • Always lift heavy items with your legs, not your back.
  • When you walk or run for exercise, seek forgiving surfaces like grass or dirt instead of pavement.
  • Again, good posture while sitting is crucial. Avoid hunching.
  • During long drives, take a break every hour, if possible. Step out of the car and walk around.

(MORE: What Your Mystery Pains Are Trying to Tell You)

Wrists, Hands and Fingers

Pain in your hands and wrists can weaken your grip and make a range of simple tasks more difficult, Crain says. These joints are commonly affected by arthritis.
  • Replace old tools and kitchen utensils with hand- and wrist-friendly versions from design companies like OXO. They can ease activities that involve a tight grip, like opening jars or turning knobs.
  • Tiny keyboards on mobile devices can foster finger pain. So while it may be tempting to respond quickly to texts or emails that come up on your smartphone, if there's a message that requires a long reply, wait until you're back home or at work where you can use your desktop or laptop's full-size keyboard. And if you're traveling with only a tablet or smartphone, consider bringing along a full-size wireless (or plug-in) keyboard as well.
  • When carrying bags, briefcases or luggage, always use a grip that involves all five fingers.

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