As we get older, we don’t often bounce back from excess joint use or even injury as fast as we used to. We start realizing how important it is to take care of our joints, because we use them in every movement every day and we want the ability to move freely as we head into the future.
What is a Joint?
In the simplest terms, it’s a moveable connection between two bones – a point where a position on your body bends and flexes. We can find them everywhere. Small joints can be found in the two to three joints we have in each finger and toe, and larger joints exist at our shoulders, hips, and knees.
We have relatively simple two-bone joints, like in our fingers. In this case, two oblong bones come together at the ends and are held in place by ligaments, tendons, and muscle. We have ball and socket joints, which we find in our shoulders and hips, and these are exactly as they sound: A long bone has a ball at one end and another bone creates a socket that the ball fits into.
This joint will have a wide range of motion as the ball can turn and twist almost any direction. We also have far more complex joints like those at our wrists and ankles. These joints are made up of eight separate bones that bend and flex with and against each other.
The problem is bone rubbing against bone is not the way joints were intended to work and – as anyone who has experienced it knows it can be irritating. Joints have a lot of working parts that help prevent this from happening! When each part of the system does its job, a joint moves fluidly and we go jogging down the street, or feel happiness at the painting we just completed or the calligraphy we just finished.
To accomplish this ease of movement, the end of a bone in a joint is covered in cartilage. Cartilage is a type of connective tissue that exists throughout the body, not just in joints. While it’s sturdy and tough, it’s also flexible. You can feel these qualities in the cartilage in your nose and ears. One of cartilage’s primary jobs in the human body is cushioning joints.
Cartilage is made up of cells called chondrocytes. They are specialty cells that produce collagen as well as proteoglycan and elastin fibers. These fibers and tissues form a matrix that is both elastic and durable, both hard enough to hold its shape and also soft enough to give.
However, the chondrocytes aren’t catered to by blood vessels. In basic biology we learn that blood vessels serve every cell in the human body. And while that’s true of almost all cells, chondrocytes are not fed this way.
The cartilage they make is long lasting and durable, so it’s not necessary for them to be fed nutrients the way other cells are. However, when cartilage sustains damage or breaks down from wear, this means it takes much longer to repair.
Cartilage in our ears and other places like our larynx is called elastic cartilage. But there are other kinds to be found in our bones. Hyaline cartilage is the cartilage we find in our joints. It's rubbery, so it's flexible, but it's also strong. However, it has poor ability to regenerate itself.
Fibrocartilage is also tough. However, it's inflexible. This is the kind of cartilage that we find in the knee. We also find it between the vertebrae in our spines. It allows these bones to move against each other, but the cartilage itself doesn’t do much in the way of moving on its own.
Lastly, we have articular cartilage. This is a specialized kind of hyaline cartilage that we find on the surface of bones. This is what covers the end of the long bones, for example, where our knee bends. This is the cartilage that will wear out and cause us to feel irritated.
Articular cartilage is attached to the end of the bone. The bone itself often has a rough surface, and this can be felt if you've ever had the opportunity to touch the end of a long bone on a skeleton! The cartilage covers the rough surface with a smooth surface of its own. This helps the two bones glide against each other, and it resists the bones grinding and wearing down. This is also why the nerves in the area don’t shoot pain signals to us each time we bend our knee or step down on our foot.
This particular kind of cartilage has the highest collagen content of all the cartilage in our body. The collagen in here is densely packed, and it's very organized, making it difficult to replace if it's damaged.
While muscle tissue has high quantities of blood feeding it and repairs itself quickly and bone also regenerates and rebuilds itself every three months, cartilage does not regrow so quickly.
This is why it's so important for us to do everything we can right now to take care of the cartilage that we have. Our goal is to not think about it; healthy cartilage is cartilage we don't notice.
Some joint discomfort is caused by irritations. When damage occurs anywhere on the human body, the body rushes fluids and hormones and immune cells to help.
Discomfort and irritants themselves are a natural response and it’s often the exact thing we need. A twisted ankle that swells up is stabilizing itself! However, sometimes it’s not the right response or the irritation itself is causing discomfort.
These are the main signs of irritants.
- The first is probably the one most of us would recognize: swelling in the immediate area. It might be what we see, even before we flex that joint and feel that it’s tight and not moving properly.
- Color: the area will often appear reddish as blood flows in to try to protect the joint. A third sign is heat: again, this is from the blood flowing to the area.
- Discomfort: This may be the one we hate the most. Extra fluids and cells move to the area where you are feeling irritated, but joint areas need to be held tightly in place by surrounding tissue.
This means extra fluid stretches the surrounding joint space, skin, and more, causing nociceptors – or pain neurons – to signal us. The last sign is also associated with this fluid buildup and its lack of mobility. It’s hard to move an expanded joint and even attempting it can cause more discomfort.
Preventing and reducing joint irritation is a priority for anyone wanting to keep their joints healthy and functioning well.
How Can We Protect Our Joints?
The good news is that, with a little care, we can protect the joints that are already working and help with the ones that might be starting to show a little wear and tear.
When do we normally see joints start to need tender care? This number is different for everyone! For college and professional athletes, this might be a concern even in their early twenties.
The pressure on joints from constant demanding workouts, and the kinds of hits and damage taken during a game or meet, can cause noticeable damage by a young age. Think about the beatings a football player’s knees take or the constant movement of the back of a gymnast.
For those of us who aren’t athletes, the age at which we start ‘feeling’ our joints could come much later. But it can happen by overuse, normal wear and tear, or injury, among other things. So no matter who we are, protecting our joints should be a top priority. Every movement depends on them.
Here are some ways you can help protect your joints:
First, we need a proper diet. It’s easy to think that our diet is far removed from our joints, but it’s not far removed from any part of our body. Every time we need a muscle repaired or an illness fought, our body is using the pieces we fed it to build the supplies it needs.
The same is true with joint function. We can’t keep or save our joints if we don’t have the proper proteins, collagens, vitamins and more for our bodies to build the parts they need.
Second, we should all be engaging in regular exercise. The kind of exercise we need is the kind that gets our heart rate and our blood flow up. Boosting blood flow does help cartilage repair faster. We need to stay as active as we can.
Being active will also help keep us at our best weight. A healthy weight is different for each of us, but excess weight on the joints will certainly cause them to work harder with each step and wear them out faster.
What a healthy level of exercise is will look different for each of us. If you’re a former college athlete, you might be driven to stay physically active each day. But you might need to pull back on high impact workouts that put extra stress on already overused joints.
If you’re already suffering from joint discomfort, then high impact workouts may be something that’s just not going to happen. But there are plenty of low impact workouts – like swimming, working on ellipticals, or even rollerblading – that can get your heart rate up without placing extra stress on already tired joints.
A growing body of evidence shows that unused cartilage atrophies. This is particularly obvious in patients who are immobilized after surgeries, but the same effects apply to those of us who just don’t have high movement lifestyles. Getting more active can help change the way our cartilage is reacting and maintain its strengths.
Help With Joint Care
There are many different supplements on the market today that can help improve your joint function. We’ll talk about the best ones here and help you make a decision about what will work for you.
Many of us have heard of glucosamine supplements. Glucosamine is used to support joint health and also improves the function of other connective tissue in addition to cartilage. It has structure modifying abilities as well as helping to reduce irritations. And it’s often used to help with bone health as well. While cartilage and bone aren’t the same tissue, glucosamine can help keep all our moving parts stronger and healthier.
Like many supplements, glucosamine is a compound found in healthy human bodies. It functions as a signal to many other points in the body to begin building the materials that will maintain and repair collagen and connective tissues. This works best when the building blocks for these other tissues are already in the body.
Eggshell membrane provides proteins and glycosaminoglycans that healthy joint tissues depend on. By providing the building blocks to make healthy tissues, our bodies can more easily and more rapidly repair joint tissues that can otherwise take extended time to heal. Eggshell membrane may be something you haven’t heard of before, but – like the eggs it comes from – it has a host of proteins as well as chondroitin, hyaluronic acid, calcium, and naturally occurring glucosamine as well.
Hibiscus extract is another supplement you might not have heard about. While many of us are familiar with the bushes with the large colorful flowers, we might not have known that hibiscus has been prized for medicinal qualities for ages.
Hibiscus can help maintain a healthy weight, which we already saw is a great way to maintain joint integrity! It can also reduce blood pressure. Blood pressure difficulties can stop us from keeping up with daily exercise, and change how our bodies digest foods. Keeping all of that under control is essential to having healthy joints and easy movement.
A combination of these three will provide the body with a signal boost to help use its own systems to keep joints healthy and strong as well as provide the building blocks to do so!
Vitamins and Other Supplements
We all know that vitamins are necessary for maintaining healthy body functions. Two vitamins that can work well in conjunction with glucosamine are Vitamin D and Calcium.
- Vitamin D3 is also known as cholecalciferol and it’s important to take it in conjunction with Calcium. One of D’s most important jobs is to help the body absorb Calcium.
It’s tempting to take a single vitamin, but most vitamins, minerals, and supplements work best when taken with a proper mix of the right ones.
- Glucosamine itself is great, but it can’t instruct the body to build the proper structures without the necessary building blocks at hand.
A combination of Glucosamine, Vitamin D and Calcium can work together to send instructions to help reduce discomfort, keep blood pressure at proper levels, and provide the materials to help maintain and build back joint tissues.
This is important for any of us who want to move irritation free and with ease in the future.
- Turmeric is another supplement that gets a lot of headlines for a lot of reasons. Turmeric is a rhizome, which is often mistaken for a root plant, but it’s not quite like a potato or a carrot.
Rhizomes grow from a cap and grow horizontally, shooting up buds. What that means for us is that it’s a different plant than the root vegetables we might have thought it was a cousin to, and it’s going to have very different benefits!
Anyone experiencing joint discomfort probably knows the difficulty of trying to treat it. Not using the joint and waiting until the discomfort naturally subsides isn’t an option for the vast majority of us.
Taking over the counter medications can help ease the discomfort for a while but taking too many (particularly NSAIDs) can result in tissue damage. Thus, Turmeric provides a useful alternative without these side effects.
- Curcumin is a compound in turmeric that has a soothing effect. Curcumin is also easier on patients than other over the counter drugs.
- Calamarine oil (from squid) is another beneficial joint helper. Fish oils have been shown to help ease joint stiffness and tenderness. They’ve also shown benefit to reducing swelling and thus reducing discomfort and they contain omega-3 fatty acids. These acids have a beneficial effect on blood flow, helping to increase it during exercise.
- Collagen is something we discussed before! It’s an essential part of cartilage’s formation and upkeep. Our bodies build necessary proteins as they go, so providing our system with the appropriate building blocks is necessary if we want the whole system to work.
Thus, taking a supplement that has a winning combination of these compounds can add up to more than the sum of its parts.
Taking Care of Our Joints
In summary, we may all be starting from different points given the ways our bodies already move. This may be because of previous hard use for athletes or fitness junkies. Or it may simply be damage from past injuries.
We might be someone with good healthy joints, but we’re looking to maintain that into the future. Whatever our starting point is, we should all have the same goals: healthy, well-functioning joints with pain free ease of movement.
The ways we got to where we are can vary, so how we go forward can vary, too. We might need to tighten up our diet. Knowing that we are feeding our bodies the things that help it both signal proper joint care and build the necessary pieces to maintain that joint care is just one step. We might also be fighting a genetic component.
Everyone simply functions differently, and bodies come in a wide variety of forms and abilities.
Taking a supplement can help ensure that any gaps in our bodies’ natural systems are filled in and not causing us problems. Remember, taking the right combination can have an even bigger effect than taking each compound individually. All of these tips together will help keep you moving into your future with ease and smooth moving joints!