Join Me in Joint HealthJoin Me in Joint Health

By Daoshing Ni, D.O.M., L.Ac., Ph.D, Dipl. C.H.,

From our jaw to our toes, anywhere that two bones come together is a joint and there is much more to a joint than we might think. Our freely movable joints are made up of bones, tendons, muscles, ligaments, cartilage, and synovium that work together to bear our weight and allow us to move our bodies through space.

The ends of our bones are covered with a hard, flexible rubbery material called cartilage that provides a slick, smooth surface for movement to take place. Our synovium is a sac that surrounds the joint and along with the fluid within, provides nutrition and lubrication to the cartilage. Ligaments surround the synovium and hold the bones of our joints together, and tendons attach our muscles to our joints and also provide our joints with stability.

Some of our joints are hinges; they allow movement in one plane such as those in our elbows and knees. Others are ball and sockets joints that allow rotation in all directions such as those in our shoulders and hips. Pivot joints in our neck allow us to turn our head from side to side, up and down, while our thumbs are saddle joints that make it possible for our thumb to oppose our fingers. There are also a few small gliding joints in our wrists that give us a little extra flexibility.

Joints can be injured by overuse, an accident, or in a sporting event. Ligaments are flexible and elastic and hold our joints together, while tendons are strong and non-flexible and hold our muscles to our bones. Sprains are stretched or torn ligaments while strains are stretched or torn muscles or tendons that occur because of sudden movement or lifting a heavy object. In addition, the bones of our joints can be dislocated and pushed or pulled out of position which is a medical emergency.

Overuse joint disorders occur gradually and are caused by working a joint repetitively and too hard such as in playing a musical instrument, in sports like bowling, pitching, or tennis; or from repetitive jobs like construction work, assembly line work, hairdressing, working at a check stand, or doing maintenance.

Arthritis is the leading cause of joint disease throughout the world; it falls into two main types: osteoarthritis and autoimmune disease. Osteoarthritis is the breakdown of cartilage over a lifetime of wear and tear. It is progressive and is most common among women and those over 50. Autoimmune forms of arthritis include rheumatoid arthritis, spondyloarthritis, and juvenile arthritis. Lupus can trigger arthritis as well, gout affects the joints in the toes and feet, and bursitis is an inflammation of the small fluid-filled sacs that cushion our joints, tendons, muscles, and bones.

Many minor joint aches and pain that occur during sports, recreation, at work, or in projects around the house will feel better after a week or so of at-home treatment although they can take three months or longer to heal completely. Rest the injured joint for a day or two, use ice or cold packs to bring down swelling, loosely wrap the injured joint in an elastic bandage, take an over-the-counter pain medication if necessary, and after a few days of rest gently resume movement of the joint.

The best way to prevent injury to a joint may seem counterintuitive but physical activity is one of the best things we can do to avoid or slow down joint problems since activity strengthens the muscles around the joints and helps them function more easily. We need to exercise at least 30 minutes a day at a minimum of five days a week in order to keep our joints healthy. Low-impact joint-sparing exercises such as walking, cycling, swimming, yoga, tai chi, or qi gong are the safest for already affected joints.

Stay at a healthy weight to avoid putting extra pressure on weight-bearing joints like hips and knees, control blood sugar to keep joint tissue flexible, and stretch gently to keep joints limber. We should wear appropriate protective gear when playing sports, and always lift with our knees and hips, and not our back. We should eat fish that are high in Omega-3s such as salmon, trout, and mackerel at least twice a week; and for certain we should not smoke.

Researchers have found that acupuncture can be very helpful in treating joint injury and disease. Traditional Chinese medicine theory states that acupuncture restores the body’s smooth flow of vital qi energy while experts in Western medicine say that acupuncture stimulates our nerves, tissues, and muscles and releases our body's natural painkillers.

According to the Arthritis Foundation, the main benefits of acupuncture are stress relief following the stimulation of endorphins and oxytocin, better sleep due to the release of melatonin, and an improved sense of well-being from the release of serotonin, and stimulation of nerve fibers that block out the signals of pain.

If you have an injury or condition that causes painful joints, you may want to think about acupuncture because it works well in managing pain and inflammation. Chinese tuina massage, along with Chinese herbal and nutritional therapies can also help nurture healing

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