Aging and Arthritis: Maintaining Joint Health Naturally
Joint health increasingly becomes a concern as we age, as degenerative joint disease can impact our quality of life. While the benefits of aerobic exercise are widely appreciated, many don’t realize that our joints require regular resistance exercise to remain in good health. Some people with increasing pain and declining mobility come to see surgery or even joint replacement as inevitable, but there are less invasive ways to help heal and strengthen our joints.
Osteoarthritis (OA) is the leading cause of adult disability, and OA of the knees represents 80% of the total burden. Around 87% of knee replacement surgeries are due to OA. The most common orthopedic procedure in North America, arthroscopic partial meniscectomy (APM) is the technical term for repairing meniscus tears in the knee. The meniscus is the cartilage that cushions the impact between the femur (thighbone) and tibia (shinbone). The goal for APM is to relieve pain by removing torn meniscal fragments and trimming the meniscus as required. Despite the frequency with which this procedure is performed, the post-surgery experience doesn’t always match the patient’s expectations.
A clinical trial was designed by doctors in Finland to determine if the procedure is actually more effective than a “sham” surgery. A randomized, double-blind, “sham-controlled” trial of 146 patients compared the results of “real” vs “sham” surgery. During normal APM, damaged parts of the meniscus are removed with specialized instruments, while preserving as much of the meniscus as possible. With the placebo surgery, the sensations and sounds of a real procedure were the same, and the same knee manipulations were performed, but no actual changes were made to the meniscus. Following both types of surgeries, patients received the same postoperative care, including walking aids and an exercise program. Both groups were advised to take pain relievers if necessary. After twelve months, researchers found no significant differences between those who had undergone the APM and those who had the sham surgery.
My interest in joint health was sparked by an injury. Performing leg extensions at the gym (an exercise I later learned was famous for causing knee damage) resulted in torn menisci in both of my knees. The pain was unlike any I had experienced. I took a combination of anti-inflammatory and type-2 collagen supplements, niacinamide, and collagen-stimulating vitamin C, proline, lysine, and silica. I also used a knee brace designed to boost circulation and wore therapeutic shoes developed by Swiss kinesiologist Karl Mueller. This combined approach helped to reduce the pain and improve mobility in less than a month, and I’ve seen continual improvement since then.
After discussing my problems with Karl Mueller, he provided me with a series of exercises to be performed with the shoes he designed to help rebuild the cartilage. According to Mueller, cartilage is a “living tissue,” and damaged cartilage can be rebuilt in as little as six months. I was also given instructions from a physical therapist on how to strengthen my muscles by focusing on a corrective walking technique, where you arch your foot upwards at the beginning of the step (dorsiflexion) and push off at the end of the step (plantarflexion). Practicing walking with Mueller’s footwear has contributed to my gradual, but significant improvement. I can now go up and down stairs without pain, something that was impossible following my injury.
Osteoarthritis of the knee is now twice as common as it was 70 years ago, and while many blame age and obesity, one recent study showed that our sedentary lifestyle is the primary cause. As Mueller said, cartilage is living tissue, but unlike other tissues, it lacks a blood supply which serves to provide nutrition and remove waste. Synovial fluid helps lubricate our joints, and with exercise, there is a natural “squeezing” which eliminates waste materials and improves absorption of the nutrients required to restore cartilage. These processes help reduce pain and increase range of motion while preventing the calcification and deterioration of the joints that result from limited movement.
Exercise (including walking with the right technique) is the key to lasting pain relief. Movement not only helps keep our joints healthy, but weight-bearing exercises strengthen the connective tissues and muscles that support and stabilize the joints, reducing the risk of injury. I found that Mueller's kybun footwear provided me with an easy way to exercise my entire leg musculature and virtually eliminate my pain over time.
It’s also important to understand the role of nutrition in keeping our joints healthy. The grain-based diet that is so common today, paired with animal foods that are low in collagen, leaves many people without the critical amino acids necessary to build healthy joints. Studies have confirmed that our ancestors didn’t suffer from the same level of osteoarthritis, even when we account for obesity and age. I recommend choosing foods that are high in collagen like organ meats and bone broths, and to supplement with marine and chicken sternum collagen.
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body, and is critical to body structure. The collagen found in bovine and marine formulas is primarily Type-1 and Type-3. Type-1 is essential for connective tissues like skin, tendons, and ligaments. Type-3 is reticulate collagen which supports soft tissues including the liver, bone marrow, and the lymphatic system. To help rebuild joint cartilage, Type-2 collagen is required.
It’s important to choose a collagen product with a low molecular weight for improved absorption. Look for marine collagen products with a maximum molecular weight of 500 Dalton, and Type-2 collagen should be 1100 Dalton or lower. If the molecular weight is higher, the collagen will be digested in the stomach like other proteins, while more bioavailable products with a lower molecular weight are absorbed before they reach the gut, leading to better collagen production in the body.
The term “comorbidities” is used to indicate how one disease is often accompanied by another. People with arthritis have a higher rate of depression, anxiety, heart disease, kidney disease, insomnia, eye conditions, hearing loss, and skin conditions. As obesity is strongly associated with OA (obesity raises the risk of OA, and makes existing OA worse), if you have symptoms or want to reduce the risk of OA, losing weight is critical.
I’ve seen a number people who’ve opted to have joint replacement surgery, and many have not been pleased with the final result. While it does take longer to rebuild or repair joint cartilage, I know now from my own personal experience that it is possible.
First published April 2018, latest revision September 2020.