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Managing bad joints with exercise
I had my first appointment with an osteopath in my early twenties, for sciatica and lower-back pain. This, I learned, was down to my habit of íslouchingí, as my mother called it - standing with my hips forward and my spine in an exaggerted íSí shape. I lived with periodic bouts of very severe pain for years, and then things changed. While I was íputting my back outí regularly, I had more-or-less pain-free periods in between. Then I started to have fairly constant nagging pain, but without the really severe bouts - mostly.
Sometime back in the í80s I had a standing spinal x-ray done by a chiropractor (why donít the hospitals do that?). This revealed that three of my discs were quite badly damaged - one in the lower back, one bwteen my shoulderblades and one in my neck.
A bit later I started getting bouts of severe pain and muscle spasm close to the inner edge of my right shoulderblade. My chiropractor put it down to my neck and treated it solely by cracking the neck joints: a waste of time - and money at £18 a go. I went to a private physiotherapist, who - for the price of a ten-minute neck manipluation - gave me an hour of massage, reflexology, heat treatment and good advice. The core of the advice was: donít rest - exercise. Thatís been my rule ever since, and although Iíve had to resort to surgery (a brilliant success) for my collapsing right ankle Iím still exercising to control the pains from the discs, one knee and a joint in my shoulder, all of which have quite severe osteoarthritis - a posh name for wear-and-tear leading to inflammation of joints.
While I was pretty well chair-bound waiting for my new ankle to heal I got incredibly stiff, but I restarted my neck, shoulder and back work-outs as soon as I could and felt the benefits within hours, particularly in terms of comfort in bed: when I awake in the morning - or in the dead of night - I can really luxuriate in the comfort, rather than struggling to find any position in which I can relax. So hereís the routine...
My neck, shoulder and back workout
Iíll try to describe this adequately in words, and maybe get round to some pictures in due course.
Please note: I offer no guarantees that this will work for anyone except myself. It is very important to approach these mobilising exercises cautiously - try them out very slowly and if you feel real pain go no further - there are no prizes for heroes. The idea is to loosen your joints up slowly and gently and then to maintain the mobility you achieve by regular repetition of the routines. I often donít do any of this for weeks and then, when I get stiff, do a workout before bed - and sometimes another during the day.
Spine 2 Sit on the floor with your legs straight out and spread at a comfortable angle. Reach forward with both hands and slide them down one leg as far as they will go comfortably, keeping the leg straight. You should feel the pull behind the knee as the hamstring stretches. Slide your hands back and sit up straight. Repeat as before. Switch to the other leg and repeat. You may find it easier to bend the free leg, even pulling your heel up towards your body. Finally, put one hand on each leg and push towards both feet. Repeat as before. With luck, you should eventually manage to touch your toes, but it may take some weeks of regular workouts.
Spine 3 Kneel with your hands on the floor, arms straight and parallel with your thighs. Arch your back upwards, pushing your head down. Then arch the other way,.pushing the small of your back downwards and lifting your head. Repeat as before.
Spine 4 Still kneeling, sit on your heels; put your hands on the floor and slide them as far forward as you can, hopefully getting your forehead on the floor even if you have to lift your bum off your heels in the process. Lift up, using your arms rather than your back muscles. Repeat as before. Eventually youíll be able to open your feet wider, sit further down and still get your head on the floor.
Spine 5 Lie flat on your stomach (you can get there directly from the previous exercise) with your hands, palms-down, under your shoulders. Press up on your arms, but keep your pelvis on the floor - you?re not doing push-ups! Life as high as you can to arch your back to the maximum. Then lower yourself back to the floor. Repeat as before. This too opens up the joints in your lower spine to help relieve sciatica - I sometimes use it in bed if I get pain in the legs at night.
Spine 6 Finally, lie on your back with your legs bent and your knees raised and together. Dtretch your arms out to the sides, palms flat on the floor. Roll your head to one side and simultaneously rotate your knees to the other, keeping them tight together and allowing your hips to rotate and the upper foot to come off the floor. I can get my thigh flat on the floor and my head rotated nearly 90 degrees in the opposite direction, but Iíve been using this exercise for years. Rotate your legs and head to the opposite sides. Repeat in a smooth, rhythmic motion. I find this incredibly soothing, like a massage, and I do twice as many repeats as for all the other exercises.
Finally... Lie still for a few minutes with your knees still raised and your hands by your sides or on your stomach. Breathe slowly and rhythmically. Then roll over and get to your feet carefully - you donít want to undo all the good work!
Exercises for the legs and feet
Once my knees and ankle began misbehaving, I started working on them, too. This lot are best done before getting out of bed.
Kick off the duvet and lie flat on your back with your legs together. Keeping your legs straight, lift one until the hamstrings pull, then bend it, using your hands on your shin to keep the leg fully bent and pull your knee onto your chest. Release the leg and straighten it, keeping it as high as possible, and lower it to the bed. Repeat as with the neck, shoulder and back exercises. Do the same with the other leg.
With your feet together, straighten your feet in line with your legs as far as possible, then pull your toes up towards your knees, maximising the movement of your ankle joints. Release and repeat as before.
Rotate one foot, clockwise and then anticlockwise. Repeat with both feet as before.
When you get out of bed, do the same number of repeats rising onto tiptoes with your legs a foot or so apart, balancing with a hand on the wall or a dressing-table if necessary.
Iíll repeat: be guided by the pain and donít strain or jerk. The idea is to increase the mobility of your joints gradually. If any of these moves causes particular discomfort, donít risk doing it - just leave it out and maybe try again in a week when the others might have done some good. Be alive to what your body tells you and be creative. Use my suggestions as a starting point and try variations until you have built a routine that works for you.
Good luck, fellow sufferers!
Personal site for Paul Marsden: frustrated writer; experimental cook and all-round foodie; amateur wine-importer; former copywriter and press-officer; former teacher, teacher-trainer, educational software developer and documenter; still a professional web-developer but mostly retired.
This site was transferred in June 2005 to the Sites4Doctors Site Management System, and has been developed and maintained there ever since.