Two conditions that plague many of us as we get a little older—sleep problems and osteoarthritis—often operate in tandem. This can cause even more problems for our health and well-being. The good news? There are many ways to mitigate the chances of developing these issues in the first place or managing them if they do happen.
It all starts with cartilage
Cartilage is the protective and resilient tissue that covers bone ends, making them more resilient, absorbing shocks, and allowing us to walk, jump, and jog, pain and friction free? Devoid of blood vessels, cartilage depends on us moving for nourishment and to stay free of metabolic waste. But damaged cartilage can result in tender, swollen, and painful joints.
What is osteoarthritis?
When cartilage breaks down, it leaves bones less protected when joints move which can lead to osteoarthritis, the fastest cause of disability worldwide. Osteoarthritis, the most common type of arthritis, affects approximately 3.25million people in the US. The most affected joints are the knees, followed by big toes, hands, spine, and hip.
What can cause osteoarthritis?
Potential risk factors include genetics (especially for hand osteoarthritis, with a higher incidence in women, and after menopause); aging (though many older adults never develop osteoarthritis); being sedentary; having certain jobs; or practicing high-impact sports.
Weight can also play a role. According to registered physiotherapist Melanie Soer, “Being overweight places higher force load through our weight-bearing joints which can lead to increased progression of osteoarthritis in those joints,” says Soer.
How is osteoarthritis diagnosed?
Common symptoms include intermittent joint pain and aching during or after movement, stiffness, swelling, and loss of flexibility9. Pain can increase as the disease progresses, with occasional flare-ups, either movement or lifestyle related.
Osteoarthritis is diagnosed using imaging, blood tests, and a detailed physical exam. Though irreversible, osteoarthritis progresses slowly, which makes it possible to mitigate symptoms through a well-designed management plan.
How are osteoarthritis and sleep associated?
Poor sleep makes us feel miserable the next day, but long term, it can increase the risk of chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dementia, and joint disease, as well as exacerbate joint pain.
Pain episodes during sleep are common among people with osteoarthritis. And, because sleeping disturbance can increase sensitivity to pain, both daytime and nighttime, this can create a vicious cycle.
“Nighttime pain occurs most often in later stages …” says Soer. Some helpful strategies, according to Soer, include “gentle stretching before going to bed, heat applications, and using multiple pillows for support.”
Maintain a healthy weight by following a diet based on whole foods that provide adequate protein and fiber, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats. Obesity, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome can increase the risk of developing osteoarthritis
“Being active and strengthening muscles, especially the ones that support the joints, is helpful in preventing the risk of injury as we get older,” says Soer. Physical activity also helps deliver adequate nourishment to the joint tissues, which enables proper functioning and repairing processes. Ditto for cardiovascular, metabolic, and brain health benefits.
Manage symptoms and improve
Switching to a Mediterranean-style diet that includes whole foods rich in anti-inflammatory compounds and healthy fats, can help reduce inflammation and pain, improve digestion, and achieve a healthy weight, which reduces the stress on joints, slowing progression.
Joint pain can result in fear of exercise, including something as simple as walking, which has been shown to be a helpful management tool. “Weight management and specific strengthening and mobility exercises, prescribed by a physiotherapist after a thorough assessment, can be helpful,” says Soer. “… gentle exercise including swimming, can help with maintaining range of movement, which can help minimize pain and swelling,” she adds.
“There are heat and cold therapies” says Soer, that can help relieve joint pain, “and some people respond well to complementary therapies, including acupuncture and intramuscular stimulation.”
- Some studies suggest that chondroitin and glucosamine sulphate may help reduce pain, tenderness, and stiffness, mostly for knee osteoarthritis.
- Topical anti-inflammatory creams including some with capsaicin , a compound from chili peppers, may help relieve pain.
- Vitamin K, important for cartilage metabolism and available as a supplement, may help in relieving joint pain.
- Omega-3s are also key in osteoarthritis management by preventing cartilage loss.
Osteoarthritis and the melatonin connection
Often used to promote sleep, melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate sleep cycles. When it comes to joints, melatonin can mop up free radical molecules involved in inflammation caused by aging, injury, and established osteoarthritis. Melatonin has been shown in both animal and human studies to promote cartilage regeneration, though more studies are needed to solidify it as a treatment option for osteoarthritis..
Source: Melanie Soer, registered physiotherapist and UBC clinical assistant professor. Email: email@example.com