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Myth and Facts about Joint Pain

All joint pain is arthritis.

There are more than 50 types of arthritis, but having a swollen, achy joint does not mean you have one of them. "You need to be properly diagnosed and treated," says Elaine Husni, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Center Orthopedic and Rheumatologic Institute, at the Cleveland Clinic, "You may not even have arthritis, but rather a soft tissue injury or bursitis." Only a visit to a doctor will tell you for sure.

Myth: Popping knuckles causes arthritis.

Sure, we've all heard this one before. Mom always said, Stop cracking those knuckles or you'll end up giving yourself arthritis. But according to Mark A. McQuillan, M.D., associate professor in the Department of Internal Medicine, Divisions of General Medicine and Rheumatology, at the University of Michigan, popping of the knuckles is just a vacuum phenomenon. When you pull on your knuckles, a bit of excess nitrogen gas that was dissolved in your blood literally makes a popping noise. So no, you won't get arthritis from knuckle popping, though you may annoy those around you.

Myth: Dry, warm weather helps relieve joint pain.

According to Dr. McQuillan, arthritis patients feel an uncomfortable pressure in their joints on days of high humidity and low barometric pressure, especially just before a storm. A drier climate means a minimum of pressure. "Before you plan a major move, however, it's good to test out drier weather for a few weeks, to see if it works for you," says Dr. McQuillan.

Myth: Exercise can aggravate joint pain.

Exercise is beneficial for everyone, with or without arthritis, says Dr. McQuillan. Yet only 13 percent of men and 8 percent of women with knee osteoarthritis get the minimum recommended amount of weekly movement. If you are in pain, forgo intense exercise and try some light stretching, or switch to workouts that are less taxing on the joints, such as the stationary bike or swimming. "The most important thing is just to get more movement in your life. Remember: Use it or lose it," says Dr. Husni. "The more exercise you do, the better your range of motion."

Myth: Diet can be a factor in preventing arthritis.

Yes — and no. Maintaining a healthy weight can help ward off certain types of arthritis. "Keeping close to your ideal weight will be protective against osteoarthritis," says Dr. McQuillan, because obesity has been linked to osteoarthritis of the hip and knee. However, diet has not been proven to have a direct link to the cause or prevention of other forms of arthritis.

Myth: There's no way to prevent arthritis-caused joint damage.

Arthritis medications — including COX-2 inhibitors, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), anti-TNF compounds, corticosteroids, and disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) — can help reduce inflammation, relieve painful symptoms, and prevent joint damage. In patients who delay treatment, "we can see drastic erosions in joints in as little as three to six months, which don't grow back," says Dr. Husni. It's best to see your doctor to determine a treatment plan that can help you maintain your quality of life and better manage your condition.

Myth: No Pain, No Gain.

This myth persists among bodybuilders and weekend athletes. Yet there is no evidence to support the notion that you can build strength by exerting muscles to the point of pain. A related belief, "Work through the pain," is also mistaken. Resting to repair muscles and bring pain relief might not be macho, but it's a smart thing to do. You may also need to modify yourexercise routine with cross training; lighter, more frequent workouts; and proper shoes.

Myth: It's All In My Head.

Pain is a complex problem, involving both the mind and the body. For instance, back painhas no known cause in most cases, and stressful life events can make it worse. But that doesn't mean it isn't real. Pain is an invisible problem that others can't see, but that doesn't mean it's all in your head.

Myth: I Just Have to Live with the Pain.

There are countless options for pain relief. They include relaxation techniques, exercise, physical therapy, glucosamine supplements, over-the-counter and prescription medications, surgery, and complementary treatments such asacupuncture and massage. It may not always be possible to completely control your pain, but you can use many techniques to help manage it much better.

Myth: Only Sissies Go to the Doctor for Pain Relief.

Older adults are more prone than their kids or grandkids to "grin and bear it." Enduring the occasional headache or minor sports injury is one thing. But putting up with chronic pain can impair functioning and quality of life. It can lead to depression, fatigue from loss of sleep, anxiety, inability to work, and impaired relationships.
Most pain can be treated effectively and should be. If you are suffering from pain, you owe it to yourself to make an appointment with your doctor. Relief may be just around the corner.

Myth: I'll Get Addicted to Pain Medication.

Health care providers begin with a conservative approach to pain relief and prescribe non-narcotic pain-relief medications, which are not addictive. Doctors may prescribe narcotics, such as codeine and morphine, if pain becomes severe, such as when treating cancer pain. Many people fear that they will become addicted to narcotics. Physical dependence is not the same thing as addiction. And, physical dependence isn't a problem as long as you do not stop taking the narcotics suddenly. Addiction is rarely a problem, unless you have a history of drug or alcohol addiction. If you do, discuss this with your health care provider beforehand.

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