Thursday, March 10, 2011

Some Doctors’ Orders Are Bad for Your Health

Why is it, when there is an orthopedic issue – arthritis, tendonitis, possible tear, etc. – do some doctors advise patients to not do anything with the affected area (even if the problem is not serious enough to merit surgery or other treatment)? Don’t they realize that “DON’T” is virtually impossible to follow since we use our bodies every day? Worse, it can be detrimental to your health.

Those with arthritis of the knee have been told to only bike and use the elliptical in the gym, rather than walking outside for fitness (or just to let the dog do his business). A relative was counseled by her doc to avoid walking because of her back pain and so she walks in the pool, taking the car there rather than walking around the corner. Problem with both of these situations is that we have to walk outside, in gravity, or our quality of life is restricted and the condition only worsens over time.

These instances reminded me of my own experience. In 2009, I developed searing knee pain and an MRI revealed arthritis. Although I had no knee problems when I previously trained for triathlons, the doc insisted I not run. Rather than accept restrictions, I performed exercises to increase leg strength, began running slowly and gradually increased the distance (a method which can also apply to walking). Since then, my knee hasn’t been a problem; had I followed doctor’s orders I might still be suffering, plus I would not have the increased muscle strength to protect against further injury and pain.

This year, I attempted to avoid using my right shoulder due to escalating irritation, something that proved impossible since I’m right handed. Reaching for the toothbrush or putting the milk back in the fridge would lead to sharp twinges. Eventually, avoidance helped severely reduce my range of motion – I was diagnosed with frozen shoulder. Therapy, time and progressive exercise (using the TRX body weight trainer has helped much more than evasion.

They say if you don’t use it, you lose it, and they’re right.

By starting slowly and building up progressively, it’s possible to regain the right and ability to move as we please. If there are stairs in our houses, we can improve our capacity to go up and down by strengthening the entire leg (front, back & sides), thereby putting less stress on the knees. In the initial training phase, straight leg exercises can be used, so even more complex knee issues can be treated.

For the shoulder, isometric exercises will ensure that muscle is not lost due to avoiding painful motions, maintaining and increasing strength that is desperately needed to recover from an injury. For any and every body, core training helps put the emphasis on the abs, glutes and surrounding muscles, further reducing pressure on the knees, shoulders and especially the back. And please don’t forget the importance of stretching to increase range of motion, reduce back pain and muscle cramping and just make us feel better all over.

There are many other, more significant doctor’s orders we should follow. But when you gotta move, you gotta move.

For more evidence, check out this recent Jane Brody column in the NYTimes Science section: