You’ve always thought of yourself as a healthy person. So what’s with the stiff back every morning? Or the knees that sound like crackling glass when you walk up the stairs? Maybe it’s your shoulders that ache after a session at the computer, or the twinge in your hip when you reach for something on a high shelf. These minor aches aren’t just annoying–they also get in the way of your life, making you less productive at work and less energetic when you want to play. Here’s help.
Why does it hurt?
Pain from a serious injury demands immediate care. Less intense pain, the kind we’re talking about here, often signals a bad habit or other problem that–though not necessarily urgent–needs attention.
1. Spotty sleep
You know you can get a neck cramp if you sleep in the wrong position. But simply not sleeping enough, or soundly enough, can make things hurt too. “If you don’t rest well, your muscles don’t get downtime”, explains Douglas Paauw, M.D., professor of medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. “That has a huge impact on pain.”
2. Past injury
You may be getting a “hello again” from the knee you landed on years ago or the elbow you twisted. “When you’re injured, sometimes the body doesn’t heal perfectly,” says Scott Fishman, M.D., a pain specialist at the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine and a member of the board of directors of the American Pain Foundation. Scar tissue may have reduced your ease of movement, contributing to the degeneration of joints and muscles. Or you may have put stress on another body part to accommodate the injury–when you favor a weak hip and end up straining the opposite one, for example. You’re especially likely to hear from those old injuries first thing in the morning because of diminished blood flow to these areas when you sleep.
3. Getting older
Tendons and ligaments lose flexibility with age, and joints and spinal disks become less well lubricated, so you may feel stiffer. “Around age 35 or 40, things start aching and hurting that didn’t earlier”, says Robert Gotlin, M.D., director of orthopedic and sports rehabilitation at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. Though stiffness can make exercise more challenging, you’ll feel worse if you’re not physically active.
Osteoarthritis (the breakdown of cartilage in the joints, leading to inflammation) is the type we associate with aging. It’s also the most common form of arthritis, causing pain and joint enlargement in the knees, hips, big toe, tips of the fingers, base of the thumb, or spine. But arthritis pain isn’t inevitable with age: Though more than half of people over 60 show signs of the disorder on an X ray, fewer than one third notice symptoms. Younger people can get arthritis, too, especially if a joint has been injured repeatedly.
Lifting your chin as you read the computer screen, hunching over the kitchen counter, cradling the phone between your ear and shoulder–when your body is out of alignment, your muscles and joints will protest.
6. Overdoing it
Pushing yourself hard in a way your body isn’t used to–starting a new exercise program, painting the living room, planting shrubs-can strain or even tear muscles. Likewise, repeating the same familiar motion without a break–inputting data using a keyboard or scrubbing bathroom walls–can irritate tendons and inflame nerves too. Interestingly, if you must repeat movements under severe time pressure, you may suffer more, says Mary Jurisson, M.D., a physiatrist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. The nervous system goes into what’s called “overflow,” when more nerves than necessary fire, which can cause fatigue and lead to muscle aches. That’s why people such as data entry workers–who must meet specified productivity demands–are more vulnerable to repetitive stress injuries than techies who may spend far more hours at the computer but under no particular time pressure.
7. Weight gain
Excess pounds put stress on joints and add to arthritis risk: “For every pound of body weight, your hips and knees feel five to ten pounds of pressure,” says Stanford Shoor, M.D., chief of rheumatology for Kaiser Permanente. Equally important, excess weight often goes hand in hand with a sedentary lifestyle. And without exercise, tissues that are already stiff become weaker, shorter, less flexible, and more vulnerable to injury.
How to help yourself
For minor aches, the following measures are often enough to ease the pain:
1. Get moving
“The more you rest, the harder it is to stop resting,” explains Dr. Fishman. “Usually you’re better off continuing to move, though it doesn’t have to be strenuous, and certainly exercise shouldn’t cause more pain.” Start before you get out of bed in the morning with a few easy stretches specifically for your stiff areas–warm up back muscles, for instance, by bringing your knees to your chest and gently bouncing them (do one at a time if that’s more comfortable), or loosen up a stiff ankle by flexing your foot and moving it around in a circle.
More vigorous exercise is important too. “Strong muscles take some of the pressure off the joints,” says Dr. Shoor. “Many studies have shown that strengthening the muscles in the front of the thigh will reduce arthritis pain in the knees.” Riding a stationary bike helps work those thighs, and walking is one of the easiest and best overall conditioners. Check with your doctor before embarking on an exercise program, and take it slow: Begin with five or ten minutes a day, then gradually work up to half an hour, five to seven days a week.
If the pain is bad and it’s hard to work out on your own, consider a physical therapist. In just a few sessions (or maybe only one), an expert can show you how to exercise safely and can tailor a workout to your needs. Physical therapists may also suggest devices, such as a wrist splint or a knee brace, to correct movement or posture problems. Check before you schedule an appointment: Some states–and insurance companies–require a physician’s referral.
2. Go ergonomic
Make sure that your workstation-whether at home or in the office-is set up correctly. You need a chair that keeps your head and spine aligned as well as a keyboard that’s low enough so that your wrists don’t have to bend forward or back. If you’re on the phone a lot, invest in a headset. While you’re sitting, fidget. “Have a five-year-old child as your role model,” advises Dr. Jurisson. And get up for a real break at least once every hour. “There isn’t any posture that’s good for your joints if you sit in it for hours and hours,” she says.
3. Sleep well
For sounder rest, cut back on caffeine and alcohol, avoid beverages after dinner (so you don’t keep waking up to go to the bathroom), and give yourself time to wind down in the evening–no late-night bill paying, Web surfing, or TV news watching. Research suggests that the kindest mattress for your back is not super-hard, as we used to think, but medium-firm. If you have neck pain, try a contoured pillow–experiment with different types and sizes.
4. Change the temperratuer
For an acute injury, such as a sprained ankle, apply ice. The cold will reduce inflammation as well as the pain from swelling. But, says Dr. Gotlin, for sore or tense muscles, or other ongoing aches, it’s your choice–ice or heat. “Go with whichever feels better,” he advises. To protect your skin, put a layer of fabric (lightweight wool is best) between you and the ice pack or heating pad, applying either three or four times a day, for no longer than ten minutes, with 15-minute breaks between applications. Don’t apply heat or cold if you have circulation problems, nerve damage, skin sensitivity, or an infection.
Drug relief: tips to keep you safe
You can’t miss the headlines: In recent months, one painkiller after another has come under a cloud. First Vioxx was taken off the market when studies showed that it increased the chances of heart attack. Two other drugs (Bextra and Celebrex) that belong to the same group of cox-2 inhibitors, as well as the over-the-counter Aleve (naproxen sodium), were also linked to heart problems. In addition, Bextra was implicated in a rare but serious skin reaction. As of late December, Celebrex, Bextra, and Aleve hadn’t been withdrawn, but researchers were planning to take a closer look.
Does that you mean you have to grin and bear your aches? No. Remember that cardiovascular risks tended to be found when patients were taking these drugs for long periods, especially at high doses.
Still, to be safe, experts advise that you:
- TALK TO YOUR DOCTOR before taking any painkiller, even over-the-counter brands. Depending on family history and your own current health problems, one type might be less risky for you than another.
- DON’T EXCEED THE RECOMMENDED DOSAGE unless a physician advises it. If the suggested amount doesn’t relieve your pain, you might do better with another medicine.
- PAY ATTENTION TO SIDE EFFECTS. Tell your doctor about any new symptoms; they could be linked to your medication.
- DON’T FORGET NONDRUG APPROACHES. Losing weight, working out, and using devices like splints can relieve pain. Even if you do need medication, don’t abandon these strategies.
See your doctor if you have …
- Sharp or stabbing pain
- Pain that radiates along the arm, leg, or elsewhere in the body
- Pain that’s accompanied by other symptoms, such as a fever, weight loss, weakness, or a change in skin color
- Pain that gets worse, keeps you awake at night, lasts longer than a week or two, or that simply makes you uneasy.
Any of these could be a sign of a more serious problem that needs medical attention.