Walking reduces pain and slows the damage caused by osteoarthritis

When you are first diagnosed with osteoarthritis of the knees, you are also told that it is a chronic and progressive condition, and the pain is something you need to manage.

At that moment you wonder: how bad will it get?

Not as bad as you might think, according to a study from the Baylor College of Medicine that found that “walking for exercise can reduce new frequent knee pain in people 50 and older diagnosed with knee osteoarthritis.”

The big surprise is that the study suggests that “walking for exercise may be an effective treatment to slow the damage that occurs in the joint”.

Image: AIHW 2015

“Until this finding, there has been a lack of credible treatments that offer benefits for both damage limitation and pain reduction in osteoarthritis,” said Dr. Grace Hsiao-Wei Lo, assistant professor of immunology, allergy, and rheumatology at Baylor College of Medicine, and first author of the paper.

What is osteoarthritis?

Simply put, osteoarthritis is the deterioration of the cartilage in a joint — what your doctor might call “wear and tear.”

The loss of cartilage means the loss of cushioning between the joints. The bones rub against each other, causing pain and swelling and reduced mobility.

Figures from 2017-18 illustrate how the prevalence of arthritis increases with age, especially in women.

A report from 2020 from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found:

  • The proportion of women under 45 with arthritis in 2017-18 was 2.7 percent
  • By the age of 55-64 this had increased to 39.6 percent and to 57.3 percent for 65 years and older
  • For men, the percentage for under 45 years was 2.3 percent. This rose steadily to 28 percent for 55-64 year olds and 39.9 percent for 65 and older.

That’s a lot of people and a lot of pain.

The study

Researchers included more than 1,000 people aged 50 or older with knee osteoarthritis. When the study began in 2004, their participants had their knees scanned and their pain baseline recorded.

Some had no pain at all, others had some pain.

The participants were asked to document exercise frequency and rate their symptoms at follow-up visits.

After four years, those who started the experiment without frequent knee pain and who walked at least 10 times to exercise (which isn’t much) were less likely to experience new, regular stiffness or pain around their knees. They also had less structural damage to their knees.

Curiously, the study found that people with knee osteoarthritis with bent legs would especially benefit from walking.

Overall, the researchers say those who reported walking for exercise were 40 percent less likely to have new frequent knee pain compared to non-walkers.

“These findings are especially helpful for people who have radiographic evidence of osteoarthritis but don’t have pain in their knees every day,” said Dr. lo.

“This study supports the possibility that walking for exercise may help prevent the onset of everyday knee pain. It can also slow the worsening of damage to the joint from osteoarthritis.”

She said that walking for exercise is “a free activity with minimal side effects, unlike drugs, which often come with a significant price tag and the possibility of side effects.”

She said that for people with everyday knee pain, “there may still be a benefit, especially if you have the kind of arthritis where your knees are bent.”

All this may seem counter-intuitive. It makes sense that walking is good for your heart, brain and mood. But your dodgy knees?

Better blood flow to the knee helps. In addition, regular exercise of the body, including the knees, helps to build muscle and strengthen the ligaments around the joints.

Start slow, drink plenty of water, rest when you get tired, and take your time building up your stamina. Slowing the progression of osteoarthritis means the knee replacement may not take place.

The study also suggests that exercising other joints — wrists, hips and ankles — may also be beneficial.

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