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Arthritis sufferers: Keep it moving!

Doug Gulasy
| Thursday, March 1, 2012

In her line of work, Dr. Vonda Wright sees plenty of people who suffer from arthritis.

And she knows a common problem patients face: They don't want to stay active, because it causes pain.

"Everybody says that," said Wright, an orthopedic surgeon at the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine.

"The worst thing a person with arthritis can do is sit around, because what happens to an old, rusty gear in a machine• If you don't keep it moving, it just keeps getting more socked in and more socked in and more rusty," she said. Soft tissues -- tendons, ligaments and muscles -- get stiff if not used, as do joints, she said.

Wright is just one member of a large medical and fitness community encouraging arthritis patients to stay active and mitigate the disease's toll.

In its many forms -- there are more than 100 -- arthritis involves inflammation of one or more joints because of breakdown of cartilage. The disease causes pain, swelling, stiffness and limitation of movement. Arthritis affects all age groups, not just the elderly.

"There's juvenile arthritis that can affect children 18 months old," said Allison Kerr, program manager for the Western Pennsylvania chapter of the Arthritis Foundation. "There is rheumatoid arthritis that affects people usually in the age range of 30 to 50, and then osteoarthritis is the form of arthritis that affects people as they age.

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, according to the foundation.

"That's why there is that stereotype of older people getting arthritis," Kerr said.

Wright said she thinks more people in their 40s are noticing arthritis because they're staying active longer. The key for them in keeping active is to modify their exercise regimen, she said.

One such exercise is Tai Chi for Arthritis, a program created in 1997 by Dr. Paul Lam in Australia, which is practiced worldwide.

Certified instructor Gurney Bolster of Mt. Lebanon said the exercise is a simplified version of Tai Chi, a martial art that focuses on movement, breathing and working the brain and body.

"The movement of Tai Chi is slow. But if you put too much quantity of movement in someone's brain all at once, it can just be sort of overwhelming." said Bolster, 62, who teaches the exercise at two West Penn Allegheny Health System locations and at classes in the South Hills.

In Lam's program, "the focus is always, work in your range of comfort," Bolster said.

"If I'm reaching up to the ceiling and you can only reach up to your chin, then modify the movement. We're not doing perfect Tai Chi, but we're still learning the principles."

Bolster said Tai Chi for Arthritis can teach people how to move without experiencing pain.

"Because you're moving slowly and you're paying attention, you can learn, 'If I shift my leg this way it hurts my knee, but if I shift my leg that way, it doesn't hurt my knee,'" she said. "So maybe I just need to learn to shift my weight in that direction instead."

Warmth has benefits for arthritis sufferers, exercise practitioners say. Dominique Ponko, the owner of Yoga Flow, said she has about 3,500 customers at four studios in Western Pennsylvania -- many of whom suffer from arthritis -- who do yoga in a studio heated to 96 to 100 degrees, meant to replicate normal body temperature.

"Heated yoga -- with all the twisting and moving, we cleanse," said Ponko, 34, of Murrysville. "We purge the organs of toxins by twisting, and through the sweat of our body, help flush out toxins. Therefore, things aren't getting deposited in the joints as much."

Kerr said the Arthritis Foundation offers land-based, water-based and Tai Chi programs for arthritis sufferers, as well as information about exercising at home.

"If you're a sedentary 40 or 50-year-old and you sit around, you might not notice that you have some wear and tear," she said. "A really active person who's trying to stay really, really fit -- you're going to notice because you're counting it more." They don't want the arthritis to overtake them, Wright said, and wish instead to stay active.

In the end, Wright said, the form of exercise doesn't matter -- just as long as arthritis sufferers exercise.

Staying active builds and strengthens muscle, which in turn puts less pressure on the affected joints.

"If we have really weak muscles surrounding our knees, every time you take a step, those two bones pound together like two hammers.

"But if you have muscle that dampens the impact on each step, you really preserve how much impact you have," Wright said.

Additional Information:

Learn more

Arthritis Foundation programs: 412-566-1645;

Tai Chi for Arthritis: Offered at Allegheny General Hospital, North Side, and West Penn Allegheny Health System's Outpatient Care Center in Peters. A program begins March 14 in Peters.

Beginning in April, the program will be offered at West Penn Allegheny's Suburban Campus in Bellevue. 412-362-8677.

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