When we think about our overall health, we think of our heart health or lung health or even or kidney health. If we’re really pushed into thinking about it, then maybe we think of our skin health or our eyesight. We change our diets, stop smoking, take up exercise, go vegan, slather on the sunscreen, and do all manner of things in the name of staying healthy. But what about our joints? The human body has over 200 joints that work in tandem to give us the ability to walk, run, jump, and move around with ease. In the land of unsung heroes, our joints are king.
Joints are surprisingly complex. They’re made up of an intricate network of muscles, tendons, bones, and nerves that work together to keep us moving. So what actually makes up a joint?
Bones, bones, and more bones
The best place to start is right at the beginning. Our bones make up the foundation of our joints. Think about joints like the intersection between two roads–the point where two different elements become one. But unlike an intersection, joints don’t stay in a fixed position. Instead, they have the ability to move, bend, and rotate.
Just like the lifestyle choices we make to keep our other organs healthy, there are steps we can take to keep our joints and bones healthy too. For example:
- Make sure you’re getting enough vitamin C, glucosamine, vitamin D, calcium, and other essential nutrients like magnesium and phosphate in your diet. And if you haven’t done it already, invest in a quality supplement targeted for joint health.
- Add some weight-training into your gym routine to build up joint strength.
- Maintain a healthy body weight–every extra pound of weight your carry puts additional stress on your joints.
- Exercise–the body was made to move. Keep active as much as possible even if it’s just walking once or twice a week.
The good stuff that cushions our joints: cartilage
Cartilage is the cushion or buffer that provides a smooth surface around our bones to stop them from rubbing against one another. It acts a bit like a shock absorber by helping minimize the impact of movement. There are three different types of cartilage: elastic cartilage, fibrocartilage, and hyaline cartilage.
When cartilage starts to erode, it causes our bones to slide against each other which can lead to pain. This is arthritis. The important thing to know about cartilage is that once it’s gone it does not come back. So it’s vital that we take steps to take care of what’s already there.
When cartilage is damaged, it is difficult to heal. Why? Because cartilage does not receive a blood supply, therefore takes longer to heal. Cartilage damage causes a myriad of problems—joint pain, inflammation and swelling, stiffness, and reduced range of motion. Articular cartilage is the cartilage that is at the ends of your bones where the joint forms. When this cartilage is damaged, it causes joint problems such as pain. Knee pain is the most common result of damage. In fact, the National Institutes of Health reports that one-third of American adults over the age 45 suffer from knee pain.
What can cause cartilage damage? A big culprit is natural wear and tear. Whether from a physically demanding job or the joys of getting older. Obesity will also cause a faster decline. Anything that puts repetitive stress can cause damage. Damage can also be caused by an injury or a blow. A car accident, athletic injury, or a fall can all cause this damage.
The aging process is probably the greatest cause of cartilage breakdown.
However, cartilage damage affects people of all ages. Athletes are a prime example. Though athletes may not notice joint problems during their career, their intense lifestyle can cause problems later in life. And it isn’t just joint injuries they are susceptible to. If not taken care, athletes have an increased risk of developing arthritis. Since athletes put increased strain on their joints, they are more prone to breakdown and associated problems. Athletic injuries can also cause long-lasting problems.
The essential oil of joints: synovial fluid
Each joint is a connection of two bones, a joint cavity, and a joint capsule. Surrounding the joint is a thick fluid known as synovial fluid. In a normal, healthy joint this fluid is clear and opaque. If the joint becomes infected, injured, or compromised in any way we start to produce too much synovial fluid or the fluid around the joint becomes discolored. A change in the fluid from normal to abnormal is seen in conditions like
- septic arthritis,
- rheumatoid arthritis,
- a broken bone that leads to bleeding in the joint, or
- conditions like gout.
Ligaments and tendons
Bones on their own are useless without the ability to let us move and rotate. This is where ligaments and tendons come into the picture. If you’ve ever wondered how bones stay attached to one another, then wonder no more. The answer is ligaments. Tendons, on the other hand, attach bones to muscle.
Both ligaments and tendons are made of tissue that is incredibly strong. Strong enough to hold the joint in place but flexible enough not to tear under normal movement. When you think of athletic injuries, it’s usually the ligaments and tendons that get injured and it’s usually these that take months to heal properly, which shows just how important they are.
Though both are made of strong tissue, they are susceptible to injury.
Common tendon issues are tears and tendonitis.
Tendonitis: As we age, our tendons lose their elasticity. This is a major cause of tendonitis—injury is another. Tendonitis is caused by inflammation of the tendon and causes a lot of pain and discomfort.
Tears: If a tendon is overstretched, it can result in a tear. And a tear can result in a surgery.
Ligaments are also prone to tears if they are overused or overstretched. A common injury is an ACL tear.
Strengthening your ligaments and tendons
It’s possible to strengthen tendons and ligaments with targeted exercises. For example, squats will help strengthen the ligaments and tendons in your legs. Just remember that it takes time. It takes roughly 10 weeks of regular, targeted exercise to see a noticeable difference in your joint strength.
Note: Just as importantly, you can also take steps to prevent injuries to both your ligaments and tendons:
- Always warm up 5-10 minutes before vigorous exercise
- Allow your body to recover for 48 hours before working the same muscle group
- Make stretching a part of your workout routine
Don’t take your joint health for granted. Incorporating these few simple, easy steps into your day to day activities can make all the difference.
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