So, what's the point of a joint? Well, thanks to 360 different joints, your body can bend, twist, and propel itself through space. And thanks to those joints, the body's 206 bones have some cushion, so we're not all clunking around and popping uncomfortably all day long.
Unfortunately, when joints erode over time through use or injury, that clanging and popping can show up in the form of painful arthritis called osteoarthritis. Get to know your joints and learn how to love and care for them, and you may be able to prevent wear and tear and the sometimes agonizing aches of osteoarthritis.
The joint: where bones get together
Joints are the point at which bone meets bone. Of the 360 joints found throughout your body, the most numerous and most mobile are called synovial joints. Named for the fluid that lubricates the joints, synovial joints come in several varieties.
Some joints hinge like a door – the ones in your elbows, ankles, and knees, for instance – and are only able to bend and straighten. Other joints, like your wrist joints, allow two bones to glide past one another and to bend, stretch, and turn in circles, which is why they are called ellipsoidal joints. Your hip and shoulder joints are known as ball-and-socket joints because the ball-shaped end of one bone scoops into the cup-shaped surface of another.
The other joints in your body include the ones between the bones of your skull and between your teeth and your jaw bone. The joints in the jaw are among a few special joints in the body that perform double-duties: the bottom part of the joint controls the hinging that lets you open and close your mouth, while the top lets you slide your jaw forward.
Give your joints some TLC
Your joints bear a lot of weight and impact every day. You can't avoid all of it, and certain osteoarthritis risk factors can't be changed – like bone diseases, bone deformities, gender (women tend to get it more often), and age (people under 40 years rarely get it). There are some strategies you can follow day-to-day to decrease your risk and give your joints some well-deserved tender loving care.
Take a load off. Maintain healthy weight. Every extra pound of weight you carry puts four pounds of stress on your knees, but losing just eleven pounds may slash a woman's osteoarthritis risk by 50%.
Stretch and strengthen. Strong and flexible muscles stabilize your joints and protect them from injury. Yoga provides lots of opportunities for joint care. For those who consider themselves inflexible, yoga can stretch your joints and improve your range of motion. People who are already hyper-flexible may be prone to joint injury, so yoga challenges them to work on strengthening and better supporting their loose joints.
Just move. Yoga is just one exercise that trains your body to let your muscles do their job. You could also try other exercises that strengthen core muscles and improve posture, such as Pilates. Or you could dive into a healthy swimming habit. The buoyancy of water supports and relieves your joints. Make sure to check with your doctor before beginning any new fitness routine.
...but move safely. The "No pain, no gain" maxim doesn't apply to your joints. Protect them from sprains – tears in ligaments that join bone to bone – by stretching before activities and by not pushing your body past its limits. If a joint is injured or weak, take a break or consider bracing it to reduce its load. Or engage in lower-impact activities, like walking, biking, swimming, or tai chi. Oh, and to dispel an old myth: cracking your knuckles won't cause arthritis. Popping your fingers and toes now and then is fine, and it can even temporarily improve joint mobility. On the other hand – or foot – popping joints too often may lead to more easily to ligament injury, reduce the strength in joints or cause pain and inflammation.
Soothe and spoil. Especially if you've taken the above advice to stretch, strengthen, and move those joints, your joints need some rest and relaxation. A rest and relaxation spa retreat for stiff joints could include massage and warm baths after workouts or before bed (got a whirlpool bath? Even better!). Sore joints also appreciate the ice pack treatment or a rub-in analgesic.
Feed them well. Since your joints and bones work together, anything you eat that supports strong, healthy bones will help your joints as well, including calcium. Combine calcium with vitamin D and you'll absorb more of the bone-boosting mineral. Go beyond milk and explore different sources of calcium: a variety of green, leafy veggies, broccoli, yogurt, squash, tofu, and oranges all burst with it! The complementary health products glucosamine and chondroitin may also help with osteoarthritis. Talk to your health care provider for information on using these products.