Putting up with pain
The coach’s refrain, “No pain, no gain,” often propels athletes to greatness, but as a mindset among the elderly, it may unnecessarily hamper quality of life.
Many endure the pain of aging shoulders, knees and hips because they consider it the price of growing old, said Connie Estridge, clinical manager of St. Mary’s Hospital’s Orthopedic/Spine Center.
Jan Burch, 74, of Grand Junction, a tough, take-charge type of person, may be one of those.
A visit to her primary care doctor earlier this year resulted in an X-ray that showed thinning of the cartilage on her knee, a sure sign of osteoarthritis. Burch said she was concerned but not overwhelmed.
“I continue to do (things) even though I’ve had this little setback,” she said. “Walking, hiking, gardening.”
In addition to an ice pack and ibuprofen, Burch sometimes relies on a knee brace to stay mobile, a practice that usually draws attention from her friends.
“Once you show up with a brace on your knee, almost everyone assumes that you’re headed towards knee replacement immediately,” Burch said. “I guess I may be, but I’m going to look into all of my options first.”
Burch attended a pain management seminar conducted earlier this month by Estridge to learn what those options might be.
“I’m trying to be in charge of this,” she said. “I’m reluctant to let someone assume I can just trade in my knee for new parts. I’m just not ready. This knee’s been with me for a long time.”
As a first line of defense, many, like Burch, alleviate joint pain with home remedies. Ibuprofen, heating pads, ice packs, or all three, are the normal response, depending on which treatment works best, Estridge said.
Over-the-counter medication may relieve the pain for periods at a time, but not without potential risks, Estridge said.
“You have to be careful with those non-steroidals because, again, as we age, the lining of our stomach can really thin out and we can get an ulcer if we take too much or we don’t take it with food. They can be very dangerous that way,” she said.
When over-the-counter medication stops working, the next doctor visit sometimes leads to a prescription for narcotics.
“That’s OK, temporarily, to see if it gives you some relief,” Estridge said. “The bad thing about pain medications is they can be very addicting. So, after a while, you wouldn’t want to stay on those things and you’re not really fixing the problem.”
Exercise and weight loss are another common-sense approach to relieving joint pain, one Burch said she pursues with the help of staff at her local health club. Narcotics are not an option for her.
To keep moving, many people decrease their regimes from high intensity to low intensity, but continue to exercise and keep their joints in motion, Estridge said.
“Always remember: Motion is lotion,” she said.
It’s important to keep joints working because a sedentary lifestyle may set a joint pain sufferer up for other serious problems like pneumonia, which can occur when lungs fail to get an adequate workout.
Burch keeps her knees lubricated by following the lead of her 80-year-old best friend, an avid explorer who recently led a hike up Grand Mesa’s Crag Crest Trail to view wildflowers.
“She’s kind of a leader in the group who wants to keep going and she’s had a knee problem for along time,” Burch said.
Neither Burch nor her friend is ready for joint replacement surgery yet, she said.
While the surgical procedure causes her concern, Burch said her real worry is the time it will take to recuperate from the operation, time which she would prefer to spend traveling, hiking and gardening.
“You’d be foolish to not be concerned about a surgery, but the anxiety would be more in the department of how long I would be out of commission. I would trust the doctors. I have been very impressed with doctors at St. Mary’s,” she said.
The key message Estridge hopes people take away from the joint pain seminars she periodically presents is the importance of seeking expert medical advice.
“Maybe surgery is not the option, but you need to find out from the experts exactly what is going on. Only then can you find out what all of your treatment options are,” she said.