Don’t Let Aches And Pains Bring You Down
Ouch, where did this twinge in my knee come from? Why is my back so balky? Most of us find that as we sail past 30, all sorts of pings and pangs develop in parts of our bodies to which we never paid much attention before. Could you–like your middle-aged Ford–use a little extra servicing? Here’s what you need to know about the most likely trouble spots:
In women, knee pain is often caused by an irritated kneecap (known as chondromalacia patella), says Freddie H. Fu, M.D., head team physician of the University of Pittsburgh‘s athletic department. It’s usually felt in the front part of the knee while you’re walking–especially when going downhill or downstairs.
Causes: Women are thought to be more prone to the condition than men because muscles around the knee are weaker, and ligaments looser, so the joint has less support. This means motion between knee bones can be uneven, tearing or injuring cartilage. The catch-22, says Dr. Fu, is that a sedentary lifestyle causes weak muscles yet a vigorous exercise program can further aggravate a weakened knee.
Self-help: If handled early, pain can be alleviated by icing and resting the knee. Avoid squatting and kneeling; if you absolutely must kneel, do it on a cushion. Also, whenever you’re going to walk for an extended time, wear shoes with rubber soles, advises Mayo Clinic rheumatologist April Chang-Miller, M.D. “When there’s padding under the feet, there’s less stress on the knees and other weight-bearing joints.”
If you’re overweight, another good preventive measure for any knee problem is to lose extra pounds, which should ease pressure on the knees. The ideal exercise for strengthening knee-area muscles? Cycling, according to Thomas Pazik, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon in Greeley, CO. “Just be sure to adjust the seat so that the lower leg is only slightly bent at the bottom of the pedal stroke.”
When to see a doctor: If pain persists or your knee gets stiff. (The problem could be caused by a more serious ailment.) Only after an examination that includes X rays can proper strengthening and stretching exercises be prescribed.
Most of us are troubled by backache at some point in our lives. Luckily, although such pain can be excruciating, it usually isn’t anything serious.
Causes: Age makes everybody vulnerable to back pain because damage from years of poor posture is cumulative. After age 30, you can stress muscles or ligaments while doing something as simple as lifting a grocery bag. It’s also around this age that many people start acquiring extra pounds in their midsections, which can pull the back out of alignment. A sedentary lifestyle also plays a role. “If I had to pick one primary cause of back pain, it would be daily, prolonged sitting–in cars, at desks, and in front of computers,” says Malcolm Pope, M.D., Ph.D., director of the University of Iowa’s Spine Research Center in Iowa City. “Back muscles get sluggish, and damage is more likely.”
Self-help: Most people recover from back pain within four to six weeks, no matter which treatment is used. But the latest medical advice is to lie down for a day or two (reclining takes pressure off the back)–no longer. Staying in bed for more than two days may actually weaken the back. Other tips: Take an over-the-counter (OTC) anti-inflammatory medication such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen, and apply ice (see “How to Ice It”). After 48 hours, apply heat.
To prevent recurrences, do back- and abdominal-strengthening exercises (many local YMCAs offer a special class called Healthy Back) and develop back-friendly habits. Some basics: Don’t lift heavy things at arm’s length or while bending from the waist (instead, bend your knees); avoid sleeping on your stomach; invest in a high-quality, firm mattress.
When to see a doctor: If there’s numbness in your hands and feet, or if the pain worsens or doesn’t respond to OTC pain relievers. Sciatica–pain that shoots down through the buttocks, backs of thighs, and calves–that doesn’t go away in a few days also requires a doctor visit.
Causes: One way women stress neck muscles is by constantly slinging a heavy bag over the same shoulder, says Lois Buschbacher, M.D., a physiatrist and clinical assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Indiana University Medical Center in Indianapolis. The purse-bearing shoulder is held higher to compensate for the weight, and that affects muscles running up the side of the neck. (Better solutions: Divide loads equally, or wear a backpack.) Other neck-straining habits: using your shoulder to cradle a telephone; sleeping on a pillow that’s too hard or too soft; positioning a computer screen so that your head must be tilted back to read it.
Self-help: Many people swear by such liniments as Icy Hot or Ben Gay, even though the effects are superficial. Other options: ice, OTC anti-inflammatories, and massage.
When to see a doctor: If pain persists longer than ten days to two weeks, or whenever a stiff neck is accompanied by fever and nausea–all possible symptoms of meningitis.
Because women’s shoulders are naturally looser than men’s, we’re more susceptible to aches in this area. One common problem is “frozen shoulder,” in which the joint gets so sore and stiff that moving the arm becomes difficult.
Causes: Frozen shoulder can be brought on by an injury, but it can also happen spontaneously, says John M. Fenlin, Jr., M.D., a clinical professor of orthopedic surgery at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. For some reason, ligaments around the joint become inflamed, which makes the sufferer move it less. Because ligaments don’t get stretched, they tighten, leading to even more stiffness and pain.
Self-help: An OTC anti-inflammatory may help, but the best thing to do is keep using your shoulder, while paying attention to how well it’s moving. Though pain often goes away with little or no treatment, the shoulder can remain impaired.
When to see a doctor: If pain isn’t gone within a month, or you notice that you don’t have the same range of motion as before. Doctors will often prescribe special exercises.
When the muscles or tendons of the lower leg get inflamed, the catchall term for the pain is shin splints.
Causes: The most common culprit is proration, in which your ankles roll inward while you’re walking, says Myles J. Schneider, D.P.M., a podiatrist and sports medicine expert in Annandale, VA. Also blamed: flat feet; constantly wearing high heels (which tightens muscles in backs of legs, causing an imbalance with those in front); overenthusiastic exercise; and wearing shoes that are worn down even a little bit.
Self-help: Moist heat, as in a warm bath, is best for relaxing muscles and relieving pain. Avoid going barefoot, which pulls tight muscles even more especially if you tend to wear heels most of the time. Stretching exercises (elongating the muscles in the front of your leg by pointing your toes downward) are also advised.
When to see a doctor: If pain persists for more than a week or worsens, consult a physician. Swelling, redness, and weakness in the foot, and numbness in the leg are symptoms that warrant a doctor’s attention.
Legs and Feet
You’re sleeping peacefully when a leg or foot muscle goes berserk, contracting into an agonizing rock-hard knot. What’s happening?
Causes: One suspect is low fluid intake, which depletes the body’s reserves of potassium, a mineral that triggers contraction and relaxation of muscles.
Self-help: Get plenty of potassium (found in bananas, orange juice, wheat germ, beans, and leafy green vegetables), and drink eight eight-ounce glasses of water a day. For immediate relief, gently stretch the cramping muscle, says Dr. Buschbacher. If the pain is in your calf, grasp your foot with one hand and your calf with the other, and slowly pull your foot upward toward your knee. If the cramp is in the arch of your foot, hold your arch with one hand, your toes with the other, and pull your toes upward toward body. Or, gingerly stand up and walk, which provides a moderate stretch.
When to see a doctor: Check with your physician if you’ve begun taking a new medication, because some drugs, such as diuretics, can cause muscle cramps. A visit is also in order if cramps are frequent and long-lasting, signs of a circulatory problem.