Musculoskeletal conditions are some of the most common health ailments in the world, but are often overlooked for research and funding compared to more immediately threatening diseases. The variety and complexity of many bone and joint conditions, as well as their long-term effects, mean that diagnosis and treatment of musculoskeletal disorders can be difficult. And they often have an outsize impact on public health compared to the focus placed on them.
The Toll of Bone and Joint Disorders
The effect of musculoskeletal conditions is massive and widespread. Some facts to keep in mind:
- Bone and joint disorders are, collectively, the most common cause of long-term pain and physical disability in the world.
- 54% of Americans over the age of 18 suffer from bone and joint conditions.
- Musculoskeletal diseases cost the U.S. more than $874 billion yearly in health costs and lost wages.
- 1 in 3 people yearly require medical care for a bone and joint condition.
- Due to an aging population, the costs of care for musculoskeletal conditions are expected to rise.
Common Musculoskeletal Conditions
Bone and joint disorders comprise a large variety of ailments, all with different causes and impacts. These include:
- Arthritis: A wide variety of joint conditions that inhibit movement and cause inflammation, the most common of which is osteoarthritis, where cartilage attached to the bone wears away, causing bones to rub painfully.
- Back Pain: The leading cause of disability worldwide, back pain affects 80% of people and the third most common cause of doctor's visits.
- Childhood Conditions: Early body development can cause a number of issues with proper bone and joint function. Among these are Vitamin D disorders, bone density disorders, pediatric rheumatic diseases, growth plate disorders, and even traumatic injuries (often sports injuries).
- Osteoporosis: A bone disease caused when the body loses too much bone density, which can lead to bone breaks. Common in older adults, especially women; it's estimated that 1 in 2 women and 1 in 4 men over 50 will break a bone due to osteoporosis.
Spinal Deformity: An unnatural curvature of the spine, often caused by injuries like fractures or by growth during adolescence.
- Traumatic Injuries: Severe, sudden-onset injuries resulting in physical trauma that require immediate medical attention.
Treating Bone and Joint Disorders
The wide variety of bone and joint disorders makes treating them require different approaches, and they may differ based on the patient. Fortunately, there are steps you can take even before a musculoskeletal condition develops. Some treatments and lifestyle changes to consider:
Exercise may be a difficult endeavor if you have a preexisting bone or joint condition, but a physical therapist or other medical professional can help design an exercise regimen that meets your specific needs. Conditions that may require specific exercise methods include:
- Arthritis: Exercise can help improve motion and reduce pain. Consider flexibility exercises like stretches to improve range of motion; strength training exercises to build muscle strength; and aerobic exercises to maintain a healthy weight and increase endurance.
- Back Pain: The back is a complex structure of bones, joints, ligaments, and muscles, so exercising to treat back pain may involve many connected regions of the body. Consider strengthening exercises for the back and core like crunches, planks, lunges, bridges, and press ups; stretching exercises for the lower back (lumbar spine), abdominal muscles, hips, thighs, and back rotator to reduce pressure on the spine and joints.
- Osteoporosis: The risk of bone fracture makes exercise both vital as well as potentially dangerous if you have osteoporosis. The right workout routine, though, can help strengthen bones. Consider low-impact aerobic and strengthening exercises to strengthen the bones by supporting your body's weight against gravity.
- Spinal Deformity: It may be your first instinct to avoid strenuous activity with a spinal condition, but exercise can help relieve pain. Consider stretches and other flexibility training like yoga and Pilates.
- Traumatic Injury: A physical therapist can design a rehabilitation program to help you overcome mobility and functioning limitations caused by a traumatic injury. Consider stretches to restore range of motion; low-impact strengthening exercises to regain muscle strength and function.
Many musculoskeletal conditions are caused or worsened by your body naturally moving or relaxing in positions that strain the bones and joints. Maintaining correct posture, possibly through the help of posture-correcting exercise devices or supportive positioning devices, can help address this.
Healthy Eating and Body Weight
So many bone and joint disorders are caused or made worse by a lack of essential nutrients. Regardless of your age, you may want to speak to a doctor or dietitian about your nutritional needs, so that you can get the most out of your meals.
Nutrients for Healthy Bones and Joints: A proper diet can do amazing things for your bone and joint health. Aside from the benefits caused by maintaining a healthy weight, certain nutrients that are readily found in foods as well as dietary supplements are necessary to a strong musculoskeletal system.
These nutrients include:
- Calcium: A mineral that strengthens bones, among other functions. We lose calcium naturally and cannot produce our own. Found in low-fat dairy products. Many foods and drinks have added calcium.
- Vitamin C (Ascorbic acid): An antioxidant that promotes immune health, reduces inflammation, and promotes cellular health. Found in citrus fruits, strawberries, broccoli, bell peppers, dark leafy greens.
- Vitamin D: Helps your body absorb calcium and promotes bone growth. Found in fatty fish, and most readily, sunlight. Also added to some foods.
- Vitamin E: An antioxidant that repairs muscle cells. Found in leafy greens, bell peppers, asparagus, sunflower seeds, and almonds.
- Vitamin K: This helps maintain the strength of your bones. Found in leafy greens, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and asparagus.
Fighting Inflammation: Believe it or not, if you suffer from rheumatic issues like arthritis, many foods can be used to reduce the accompanying inflammation. These include leafy greens, tomatoes, fruits (strawberries, blueberries, oranges, and cherries), nuts, olive oil, and fatty fish. Foods that promote inflammation include refined carbohydrates and sugars, processed meats, lard, and fried food.
Healthy Weight: Many bone and joint conditions are worsened by being either too heavy or too thin. How can your weight affect you?
- Overweight: Overweight or obese people are at greater risk for back and joint pain, as well as muscle strain. Excess weight puts additional stress on joints, and when gathered around the stomach it can pull the pelvis forward, straining the back. It can also lead to limited stamina, causing a lack of exercise.
- Underweight: Thinness, even healthy, proportionate thinness, has been linked to weaker bone density in women, which can lead to osteoporosis. It's possible that a lack of stress put on load-bearing joints leads to weakened bones.
Stress Relief Methods: Stress can be a major contributor to back and joint pain. Although invisible, don't count stress out as a culprit -- its effects can lead to changes in your habits and environment that affect your health. While fatigued due to stress, you may limit exercise and other leisure activities, eat poorly, or suffer from lack of sleep.
If you're dealing with stress, consider adopting the following habits:
- Breathing exercises
- Physical exercise
Hydrotherapy: Aside from aquatic therapy to strengthen muscle, hydrotherapy techniques like whirlpool baths, ice packs, and moist heat packs can be invaluable in dealing with the pain and inflammation that come with a musculoskeletal condition.
Assistive Devices: If you suffer from a bone or joint condition, an assistive device may help you move more freely and maintain independence. Walkers, braces, and other supportive positioning devices are available whether you need help with moving or with reducing stress on your body at rest.
Medications: Over-the-counter pain relievers or anti-inflammatory medications can help treat the symptoms of bone and joint conditions.
These are among the many possible treatments to bone and joint conditions. Each person's experience and body are different, however. Your skeleton is connected by an intricate system of muscles, ligaments, and joints. It's important to pay attention to your body, to not dismiss your aches and pains, and to consult with your doctor when something's affecting your mobility or comfort.