The ultimate fix for aging joints is to “stay strong or get strong.”
When it comes to joints, physical therapist Mike Studer, president and co-owner of Northwest Rehabilitation Associates, strongly believes strength is paramount to healthy aging.
“People can improve, no matter what their age,” Studer says. “While it is true that age limits our ability to achieve our maximal strength, endurance, and reaction speeds that we achieved at age 20, age does not limit our ability to improve from a point of weakness, from a stroke, or with Parkinson’s disease. Recent advances have proven that our limits that we ascribe to age are more self-imposed than they are truly physically impossible.”
Studer often takes his own advice. The father of three is an active runner and tennis player.
“I’m intense and passionate,” Studer says. “I love my profession, love learning, love teaching and imparting wellness.”
Studer was named the American Physical Therapy Association’s Neurology Section Clinician of the Year in 2011 and Geriatric Section Clinician of the Year in 2014.
“The field of neurology motivated me to work with seniors,” Studer says. “I particularly love working to improve the human brain and especially love helping people that believe they cannot improve.”
Studer says the most prevalent problem older adults face with the hips, knees and other joints is weakness, hence striving to get strong and stay strong.
“Weakness in the muscles surrounding the back of the hips and knees is often preventable if addressed early enough,” he says. “This weakness changes how a person moves and can lead to arthritic damage at the hip and knee joints.
“Walking is a form of exercise that many people choose as their only exercise,” Studer says. “While it is inexpensive and often convenient, it does not address strength.”
According to WebMD, tips to maintaining healthy joints include maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, building muscles to support joints, helping joints with a strong core, knowing your limits, perfecting your posture, protecting joints by protecting the body, icing for healthy joints, and eating right to nourish joints.
Even with strength training and following a healthy, active lifestyle, some seniors experience imbalance problems and weakness in joints. The Centers for Disease Control reports that one in four people over age 65 in the United States falls at least once per year.
“This is the single greatest predictor of the likelihood of falling again,” Studer says. “Most falls are related to disorders of balance that include limited reaction speeds, impaired strength, vision, and inner-ear function — or a combination.”
Studer says hip joint stress can emerge from joint stiffness, requiring flexibility exercises; or weakness, requiring strengthening exercises. Suggested exercises include side lunges, performed with or without weights, to help strengthen and tone the thighs, buttocks and hips; leg lifts to increase range of motion while working muscle groups; squats to move hip bones through flexion and extension ranges of motion; stretching for optimal function of hip muscles; and cycling or walking to improve mobility.
When conservative measures of strengthening are not possible and not helping, and a thorough documented examination with imaging shows severe degenerative joint changes, surgery should be considered, Studer says.
Retired teacher Kris Phillippay started having hip issues in her early 50s. The Salem resident’s first hip replacement was when she was “about 60.” Now in her late 60s, she had a second hip surgery in April.
“I did have physical therapy before my first and second surgeries,” says Phillippay, a married mother of two and grandmother of four. “The physical therapy helped strengthen the hip but did not take the pain away.”
When therapy failed to alleviate her pain, which had started to interfere with her daily life, Phillippay made an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon. X-rays and MRI on her hip determined whether she would benefit from surgery.
“After careful consideration and getting a second opinion, I decided that replacement would be the only thing to relieve the pain,” she says. “Both surgeries relieved the pain and gave me much improved hip flexibility.”
Phillippay started physical therapy about a week after surgery.
“Therapy certainly helped with gaining strength and confidence as I healed,” she says. “They tailor the exercises to each person and certainly give you a little push to do more each week. My physical therapy lasted about six to eight weeks. For me, I would say that three or four months after surgery, I felt ‘normal.’”
So, when is it time to see a specialist?
“All medical professionals have different specialties,” Studer says. “The question ‘when to see a doctor’ might best be answered about hip or knee pain when the pain has started to limit quality of life, and choices to be active or to participate in events, hobbies or meaningful work.
“People experiencing imbalance, weakness or fear that is limiting, should see a physical therapist,” he adds. “Certainly, people that have limitations in endurance may need to see a cardiologist, a neurologist for other reasons, and a primary care physician to direct medications as well as an overview of health systems.”
When seeing a specialist, make sure the doctor addresses all concerns related to the condition, he says.
“People deserve value in all medical appointments,” Studer says. “Time, attention, facts that are specific about their condition and choices no matter it be about pain, endurance or weakness.”
According to Everyday Health, incidences of hip replacement surgeries often increase after age 65, but for most seniors, Medicare coverage makes long-awaited joint replacement surgeries possible.