How To Move Without Pain

5 Ways to Keep your Joints Healthy

by Meghan Griech, PT, DPT, cert MDT, CKTP

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Joint health as we age is often not considered until pain starts somewhere or stiffness at a joint. We are too busy with work, kids the schedule to realize our body is changing inside, muscles could be stiffening slowly losing flexibility. Our bones could be losing cells quicker than our body is replenishing them, silently leading to osteoporosis. These changes happen throughout our lifespan, a daily internal working we rarely consider until it limits something we want to do, like hike, play sports, or run.

Our musculoskeletal system, which includes the bones, muscles, ligaments, cartilage, and tendons, is something we are born with and develops as we age. It helps to give our bodies the structure and support while allowing the movement it needs to participate in activities. This movement takes place at joints, which is where the bones come together.

Contrary to popular belief, the bones at a joint don’t actually touch. Rather, the ends of the bones are cushioned with cartilage, surrounded by a synovial membrane that helps keep the joints lubricated and moving smoothly.

When we are born, our bones are still developing, still strengthening and lengthening. This process continues until we are teens when the epiphysis (sometimes called the growth plate) of the bones mature, calcify and bone growth stops. Children’s bones are more flexible and therefore more forgiving ’ as compared to harder, thick adult bones. A child’s bone can actually bend (within reason) before it will break. Adult bones don’t have that flexibility and may break more easily. 

In adults, flexibility comes from tendon, ligaments, and muscle flexibility, although this is far less forgiving. 

Common Aging Changes

Osteopenia or osteoporosis: is the result of our bodies losing bone mass or density. Our body is a constant rhythm of absorption and replacement of our cells, this includes bone cells. The body continuously absorbs and replaces bone tissue, however, with osteoporosis, new bone creation doesn’t keep up with old bone removal.  

People lose bone mass as they age, especially post-menopausal women. It is estimated 54% of adults aged 50 years or older have bone mass loss.  Progression of Osteoporosis can put people at more risk for a  fracture from a fall and possibly result in loss of independence. 

Movement ability changes: the joints can become stiffer or have periods of time of greater stiffness, like after a long car ride, the first 30-minutes in the morning, or after sitting to watch a movie.  Ligaments, the fibrous connective tissue that supports joints by attaching the bones together, can become tight, less extensible, and ‘dehydrated’. 

Additionally, the articular cartilage that cushions our joints can become thin. Although this deterioration is a normal part of aging, it can cause inflammation in some individuals. 

Minerals may deposit in and around some joints ( known as calcification), and is commonly seen around the shoulder and hip.  Bone spurs are calcifications on the edges of bones caused by aging and overall use of the joint, common in the spine (neck and low back), hip, shoulder, and knees.

Degenerative changes: This occurs as the joints begin to lose cartilage (degenerative changes). A commonplace for this to occur is in the knee, particularly the menisci. The menisci can become less pliable, causing tiny pieces to rub or fray, allowing for more friction in the joint to occur.  Another common joint is the finger. The joints of the fingers can lose cartilage leading to slight thickening.  This can make the fingers appear ‘bony’ or angled to one side. 

In the spine, discs help to provide a gel-like cushion between the vertebrae.. With age, these disks can begin to break down, fray, and lose fluid.  This is a normal process that happens to everyone as they age, and in some cases leads to that “shrinking” phenomenon people see in their grandparents.  In some individuals, this can lead to reduced spine flexibility, difficulty with mobility, balance, walking, or even sleeping. 

Knee joints are often susceptible to arthritic changes as we age. The knees can appear to bow out or bend in compared to younger knees which look straight. These bony changes can lead to a reduced ability to bend the knee all the way or straighten fully. 

The foot arches can also become less pronounced, contributing to increased stress within the ankle and plantar fascia. This can change how weight-bearing occurs at the knee and hip also.

What Can You Do

Protecting your joints as early as possible can prevent unnecessary joint stress, injuries and enhance mobility as you age. 

Daily movement or exercise is one of the best ways to slow or prevent issues with the bones, muscles, and overall mobility.  Exercise helps the muscle stay strong and flexible, particularly, weight-bearing exercises help bones stay strong. Exercise helps us maintain better balance, confidence in walking, and reduces the risk of falls. Low impact exercises like walking, swimming, and biking are great options.

Keeping tabs on your diet, including eating foods rich in collagen can help our body’s ability to boost collagen production. Understanding the required amounts of collagen needed for your age, gender, and overall health is an important discussion to have with your physician to ensure the proper amount for your body’s needs. 

Additionally, a consistent diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and fish are found to help lower the inflammation markers in the blood. 

Listen to your body. There is a difference between muscle soreness and strain – knowing the difference is important to understand what you are doing that is helping you stay strong and what may be causing you unnecessary pain.

Drink more water. ​​Water makes up 80% of the cartilage, therefore when your cartilage loses water, there is less synovial fluid in your joints. Water is essential for every part of our body to work effectively. Staying well-hydrated is essential to your overall health. Water helps lubricate joints and is required for our skin, muscles, discs, and throughout our body for proper function! Water helps to regulate body temperature, helps stave off infection, and helps kidneys eliminate toxins. 

*Disclaimer: All information in this article is intended for instruction and informational purposes. The author(s) are not responsible for any harm or injury that may result.  This information is used to supplement not replace any advice you were provided from your doctor or another medical health professional.  No guarantees of specific results are expressly made or implied with this article.

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