They provide our bodies motion and flexibility. They also happen to be the source of debilitating pain for young and old, active and inactive, large and small.
They're our joints, of course. Were it not for ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, and elbows, would there even be such a thing as a sports injury?
Joint pain — particularly in the lower half of our bodies — stems from the deterioration of cartilage, the shock-absorbing connective tissue that allows us to broad jump on a gym floor and land without screams of agony. The more a joint is used — basically, the more we move — the faster cartilage will break down, which can ultimately lead to the bone-on-bone agony of arthritis.
Dr. Frederick Azar of the Campbell Clinic emphasizes that joint discomfort can be genetic, thus people in their early 40s needing a hip replacement, or 30-something joggers needing ice for their knees. Someone playing tennis from a young age — with a genetic predisposition to joint pain — shouldn't be surprised when her knees start barking in her 20s.
As for upper-body joint pain — shoulders and elbows especially — Azar says the culprit is typically tendinitis, the inflammation of soft tissue that rests outside the joint. "These are more likely to be self-limiting [having an endpoint with conservative treatment]," says Azar, "because they're not weight-bearing joints and it's not a cartilage problem."
A recent report by the National Pain Foundation described more women (10 percent) than men (7 percent) as suffering "severely painful joints." Azar says the medical industry is a bit baffled by the difference. "If there's multijoint pain, you're more likely to see women looking for an inflammatory source or an autoimmune source," he explains. "Something beyond the run-of-the-mill tendinitis or arthritis. Nobody really knows why. We don't think it's structural."
Beyond activity modification — which can run counter to our "eat right and exercise" path to good health — Azar recommends lightweight, low-resistance strength training to ease joint pain, and to help prevent further interference in a normal, mobile lifestyle.
And stretch, people. "As we get older, we get less flexible," says Azar. "Stretching before and after an activity is very important. Nobody wants to do it; it's kind of boring. But spending 10 to 15 minutes stretching will put you at less risk of having a [joint] injury."
For the most active among us, joint discomfort — particularly in the ankle and knee — is merely a byproduct of our tennis-playing, 5K-running lifestyles. Drew Graham, head athletic trainer for the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies, notes that the most comprehensive cure for joint pain is simply rest (a rare commodity for pro basketball players). As far as preventing pain in the first place, Graham describes "unloading," literally taking weight and the force of movement off an overused joint. "For people who need cardio work," notes Graham, "elliptical machines are as close to running as possible, and they reduce the pounding. You have to work harder than running, because your body doesn't exert as much. But if you're running four days a week, you might start running two, and doing the elliptical two." Graham adds that swimming is a tried-and-true exercise for those with joint aches.
Finally, Graham cautions against overuse of over-the-counter pain medications like Aleve. Consider fish oils as a healthier, more natural anti-inflammatory treatment. Among available medications, Azar recommends glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate (which are combined in a single pill; ask your pharmacist which brand and dosage is best for you), but only in moderation. "You want to treat the pain," stresses Graham, "but you also need to address why you got the pain in the first place." M