It's common for us to dismiss stiffness and pain as just another sign of getting older, but it doesn't have to be this way. Our bodies are in fact incredibly sophisticated machines with an amazing ability to repair - it may take a little longer to recover from injury when you're over 70, but your cells still replenish in the same way.
Contrary to popular belief, 'wear and tear' doesn't really exist; our bodies don't start packing up just because we're getting on a bit. Brighton Sports Therapist, Jamie Webb, offers his advice on what are the more likely causes of aches and pains and how to prevent them.
Musculoskeletal Pain - the areas of your body that suffer most
Stiff joints and back pain are often associated with general ageing but actually the problem comes from biomechanical dysfunction – which basically means there has been a change in your musculoskeletal mechanics, resulting in faulty movement patterns. GPs prescribe anti-inflammatory or painkilling drugs as a treatment rather than a cure and every year there are thousands of joint replacement operations. Genetics and illness do play a role but thankfully there’s a lot you can do to limit and avoid this pain. Understanding how to use your body and joints properly is vital:
- Lower back - Back pain is a common problem that affects most people at some point in their life. It is most common in the lower back (lumbago) although it can be felt anywhere along your spine. It can be triggered by bad posture, sudden impact, bending awkwardly or lifting incorrectly. Increased stress levels are also a factor in back pain.
- Knee - The knee cap (patella) is merely there to increase the efficiency of the quadricep muscles. But it gets such a bad press. People end up terrified of this joint. But most problems in the joints are caused by the muscles that act across the joint - not underlying problems within the joint. This can be true even after you may have damaged ligaments in the knee. Obesity is a large factor in affecting load pain and dysfunction in this joint.
- Hip - The hip is a ball and socket joint with the widest range of movement of all the main weight-bearing joints. It carries the weight of your upper body as well as experiencing pressure from the legs below meaning it is particularly susceptible to problems. It can help to strengthen the muscles around the hip initially with non-impact exercise such as yoga, swimming and cycling, progressing onto more challenging load-bearing exercise for a full long term recovery.
- Shoulder - Shoulders are the most mobile joint in the body which is why shoulder dislocations are relatively common. Bad posture can hugely impact this joint. Walking and sitting with hunched shoulders is common and can cause many problems.
- Neck - The neck allows for lots of movement but bad posture can compress the discs between vertebrae. Avoid keeping it at an awkward position for long periods of time. Particularly when using a computer and leaning the head forwards into the screen. Excessive laptop use is particularly bad for neck problems.
Likely causes of musculoskeletal pain
Your body is a brilliant piece of kit. Muscles don’t just deteriorate over time. If you lead a very sedentary lifestyle with poor nutrition however, they may begin to waste away due to inactivity – if you don’t use it, you lose it. Rather than blaming your aches and pains on old age, it’s worth looking at the more likely day-to-day causes:
It is a well-known fact that those who are physically active are healthier, happier and tend to live longer than those who are often sedentary. Not only can inactivity cause health risks such as arthritis and osteoporosis, it can also lead to weight gain, weakened muscles and joint pain. We are built to move and we need to use the muscles we are born with. Healthy muscles optimise our joint mechanics.
Posture can be defined as a state of skeletal and muscle balance and alignment, which protects the supporting structures of the body from progressive deformity and strain. Incorrect posture can increase the strain on muscles, bones and ligaments. Over time, muscles and soft tissues adapt by either shortening or lengthening and these non-optimal strategies can cause pain and joint stiffness.
Compensatory movement patterns
When a person is cautious about a particular injury or niggle of pain, they will often move their body more tentatively to try and avoid any further aggravation. Unfortunately this only makes you feel more pain. Consider how tense someone who looks in a lot of pain looks. They tense muscles all over their body to brace to try to avoid pain. Muscles have large amounts of pain receptors in them so increasing the tension in the muscles will increase the pain you feel. Try it yourself. Pick something light up off the floor without thinking about it. Now repeat the exercise but do it slowly, cautiously and tentatively and you will feel more stiffness if not an amount of pain.
Stress increases our sensitivity to pain. We simply feel pain more when we are stressed. It can also lead to an increase in inflammation in the body which in turn causes further muscle tension and joint stiffness. Your immune system can be weakened by anxiety that leads to feelings of joint pressure. All of which pushes dopamine levels down making the pain harder to ignore.
How to keep your body efficient and prevent aches and pains
Exercise is crucial for increasing strength and flexibility, reducing joint pain and helping to combat fatigue. It also helps you to maintain a good body weight which will not put too much pressure on your joints.
Maintain good posture
Being aware of correct posture is a simple yet important way to keep your back and spine healthy and minimise risk of injury. It also improves your circulation and digestion, makes breathing easier and can even affect your frame of mind. Not sure how to sit properly? Read our advice here.
Seek the right treatment
If you have musculoskeletal problems your GP is not always the best person to go to as they may well just give you pills to minimise the inflammation. In fact, doctors can be the biggest culprits in dismissing pain as ‘wear and tear’ or old age. Sports therapy or physiotherapy will identify the root cause of your problems and teach you how to manage everyday life so that you do not get the pains again.
The cartilage in our joints is made up mostly of water which is what makes it such a great cushion. When we’re dehydrated, water gets sucked out of the cartilage making it weaker. Keep your cartilage healthy by drinking six to eight cups of water throughout the day.
Eat fibre each day and include whole grains, fruits and vegetables in your diet whilst limiting refined carbohydrates and fat. Opt for inflammation-fighting foods such as ginger, turmeric, pomegranate seeds, apricot and cherries as well as foods that contain potent antioxidants and omega 3 such as apples, nuts and seeds. For details on eating a healthy diet (and to help lose weight) why not join the FREE Yours Reclaim Your Waist club?
Avoid too much caffeine, alcohol and nicotine and get plenty of sleep. Daily meditation can also help to ease anxiety. Doing yoga, listening to music and taking walks in nature can also help you to de-stress.