Treat RA Joint Pain With Movement. Avoid Disuse Syndrome.

RA Pain Can Lead to Disuse Syndrome 

Did you know that RA joint pain can lead to a diagnosis of disuse syndrome if you do not include exercise as part of your RA treatment plan?

What is Disuse Syndrome?

Medical dictionaries define disuse syndrome as a “deterioration of body symptoms as a result of prescribed or unavoidable inactivity.” (4) The term was first used in 1984. Disuse syndrome is caused by human or animal inactivity and leads to the malfunction of many of your bodily systems including muscle and bone, cardiovascular, blood and gastrointestinal systems.

Since 1984, the term has gotten a lot of scientific attention because  health scientists have begun to stress the importance of exercise to decrease chronic pain.. Disuse syndrome has been tied to lack of exercise caused by our sedentary lifestyle,  chronic pain, immobilization as a result of injury or disease and simply fear of movement due to pain.

I know first hand how hard it is to make yourself move when you hurt, but sitting still will only make your disease progress. Lack of movement can have serious consequences for your overall health.

How Does Disuse Syndrome Affect Your Health

If you have RA joint pain and do not exercise you may put yourself at risk for disuse syndrome. Our bodies need exercise to stay healthy. Below are the many ways disuse syndrome affects your health:

  • Your Musculoskeletal System is affected severely. If muscles are not used they simply shrivel and become stiff. If you have ever had a broken bone that was put in a cast, you know how quickly your muscles can atrophy while your broken bone is immobilized.  If you have RA joint pain, you know how quickly your muscle and joint pain increases when you do not exercise regularly.
  • Your Cardiovascular System transports oxygen through out your body. Your heart is a muscle and needs exercise to function properly. Disuse syndrome reduces your cardiac output, increases your blood pressure and decreases the fluid in your blood.
  • Your Red Blood Cell Mass decreases so you are at risk for blood clots.
  • Your Lungs are dependent on exercise too. If you do not exercise, your lungs get weak and do not function properly. You are then at risk pneumonia and other respiratory diseases.
  • Your Gastrointestinal System needs to be used to maintain proper function. Lack of movement can cause constipation and even diverticulosis.
  • Your Genitourinary System becomes sluggish due to lack of movement. Your kidneys do not function properly, your bladder becomes weak and you can become incontinent.
  • Your Reproductive System does not function as well with less activity.
  • Your Endocrine System: Physical exercise increases insulin binding. Your thyroid, adrenal and sex glands begin to malfunction without physical activity.
  • Your body temperature falls and your circadian rhythm begins to change so you have difficulty sleeping and gain cold intolerance. When the elderly don’t exercise, they complain of being cold all of the time and having trouble sleeping?
  • Your Sensory Deprivation: Studies have found that many people on bed rest get disoriented because they do not receive regular auditory and visual cues.
  • Your Nervous System can also be affected. Animals tested in an environment where movement is limited have smaller brains than active animals.
  • Your Cognitive and Behavioral Systems are altered with inactivity. An article published in the Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine (6) described a study done on patients with chronic pain and disuse syndrome. Thirty two patients participated  in this program. They were enrolled in an inpatient multidisciplinary cognitive behavioral training program. They were evaluated at 6 months after the program ended and again at a year. All participants showed improvement in pain, fatigue, walking distance, muscle strength, anxiety, and depression after their training.

How to Include Exercise as Part of your RA Joint Pain Treatment Plan

The human body is designed for movement- not for sedentary activity. As you can see many of your vital bodily functions are compromised if you do not participate in regular exercise. Here is a suggested activity plan that will help you avoid and/or treat disuse syndrome.

If  You Are not Exercising and Want to Avoid Disuse Syndrome

You have lots of choices:

  • You can choose a form of exercise that you enjoy and slowly begin moving.
  • You can attend Thai Chi or Yoga classes run by a trainer who has experience working with people with arthritis.
  • You can get Thai Chi or Yoga DVDs designed for people with arthritis.
  • You can ask your doctor for a Physical Therapy referral and let a physical therapist design an exercise program specifically for you

If you begin an exercise program, remember to:

  • give your body a rest if you are having a RA flare
  • check with your doctor before beginning an exercise program
  • and do not repeat any  exercise that causes sharp pain

If  You Have Disuse Syndrome

You need to work with your doctor and a rehabilitation professional to begin an exercise program. These professionals are trained to evaluate you then slowly train you to begin moving again in a way that does not cause further harm to your body. Most professionals believe it is best to use a  multidisciplinary  approach to treating disuse syndrome.

The good news is that it is almost never too late to begin an exercise program that will eventually reduce your joint pain. Our bodies are very resilient. Human tissues almost always respond to stimulation from exercise. It may take time but the effort is worth it.

Happy Moving,


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