The human body functions as nature's well-oiled machine, with bones and joints providing the structure and support necessary to accomplish daily tasks, as well as feats of endurance. Whether you're an average Joe on a light exercise plan or an athlete undergoing strict conditioning, it's a personal challenge to keep these parts healthy in order to avoid problems later in life.
It begins with awareness of the stress the body experiences every day. "Trying to do too much, too fast is a recipe for disaster," says Ron Helwig, a physical therapist with Magnolia Physical Therapy. Helwig's clients often recount similar circumstances of how they were injured. Stories start with descriptions of a bending motion and end with a startling snap, crackle or pop. Many, however, don't realize the incident may not have been the exact moment of injury.
"They may have been executing a motion incorrectly over a long period of time, and that was the straw that broke the camel's back," Helwig says. "It's a problem with mechanics. [W]e get in a rush and do things improperly. We're bending and lifting incorrectly all the time."
Maintaining good posture is another important element in managing joint strain. "When people are sitting in a slouched position over a long period of time and then get up to move, their ligaments are undergoing a process called 'creep' where they eventually become less stable," he says.
Joint injuries can strike both older, sedentary desk jockeys and athletic young adults. In the latter case, overuse of joints frequently plays a factor in injuries. "Over the last five to 10 years, we've seen more kids specializing in one sport at a young age," says Dr. Buddy Savoie, orthopedic surgeon and director of the Tulane Institute of Sports Medicine. "If they don't rotate sports over the calendar year ... they tend to get hurt in a particular area (that suffers continual stress). If they become fatigued, they never have a chance for their body to recover.
"There's good evidence that playing a single sport for more than eight months in a year increases your chance of getting an injury related to that sport by 300 percent. For example, in soccer players you'll see a lot more ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) injuries and ankle sprains because they're on their feet constantly. It all relates to core strength weakness. When I first started 20 years ago, I operated on professional athletes. Now there are 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds who are tearing their elbows, and we have to reconstruct them. It's just awful. Our goal right now is not to say 'Don't play,' but to ask how we can condition them so they don't get hurt so much."
Young people don't usually worry about their bones and joints until they sustain an injury, but as their bodies age, bone and joint health becomes a new priority. During youth, joints tend to remain balanced unless they're put under immense stress. "The hard part when you're ... older is to maintain flexibility and keep each joint balanced," Savoie says. When flexibility decreases, joints wear down, causing significant problems. Over time, joint dysfunction sets a person on the path to joint replacement surgery.
There are simple steps to take to reduce your risk of needing replacement surgery later in life. First, "maintain normal joint biomechanics," Helwig says. It's essential to detect any dysfunction happening within the body in order to stop a joint from degrading. "Usually, the individual will feel pain or that something is not quite right within a particular body part," he says. "Seeking the advice of a medical professional early on is important in order to restore normal joint mobility from a quality and quantity standpoint."
Second, maintain a regular fitness regimen. "Weight-bearing activities are important, as research has shown that they can slow down bone loss and actually reverse the process," Helwig says. To experience these benefits, the fitness plan should include resistance exercises. "You can't say, 'I'm going to ride a bike every day to build up bone density,' because you won't (build bone density)," Savoie says.
In addition, it's important to maintain muscle strength to prevent ligament injuries. Ligaments create "a static system of stability" and "hold bone to bone," Helwig says. Muscles provide a dynamic source of stability around the ligaments. Therefore, it's important to warm up and stretch in order to properly work muscles on both sides of the joint, Savoie says. For example, when working your knees, you should focus on both your quadriceps and hamstrings.
In addition to an appropriate exercise routine, proper nutrition and supplements help keep bones and joints in good condition. According to Dr. Catherine Wilbert, doctor of naturopathic medicine and a nutrition consultant, it's normal to lose bone density as we age. "However, bones are regenerative," Wilbert says, "and we need to be proactive in preventing disease."
"Particularly in older females, osteoporosis is a major issue," Helwig says.
Because of that, Wilbet says, proper intake of calcium is extremely important because it naturally helps build bones, particularly when paired with magnesium. Our best defense comes in the form of supplements, since many people do not get enough nutrition from food, she adds.
Good nutrition for bones and joints starts with drinking plenty of milk and having good protein intake, Savoie says. Women should strive to consume 1,200 to 1,500 milligrams of calcium daily, in addition to a multivitamin, Wilbert says. Omega-3 fatty acids are also necessary for joint comfort, because inflammation often stems from an omega-3 imbalance, she says.
By being conscious of the physical stress your body endures and following a steady exercise and nutrition routine, you can avoid a future of brittle bones and weak joints. The body itself also works hard to ensure a healthy future. "Bone healing is a truly miraculous thing," Savoie says. "You can have terrible calcium levels and be the most osteoporotic person in the world, and your body will steal calcium from another part of the body to heal that break. It really is unbelievable."