I’ve been asked many times by patients, “Do arthritis exercises work?” Knee arthritis is an exploding epidemic as our population becomes older and heavier. Several studies have confirmed that exercise is one simple remedy for the pain and lost function that comes with knee arthritis. However, nobody has been quite sure why this works. Now a new study shows that that the reduction in symptoms is likely due to getting stronger leg muscles.

Arthritis is defined by a host of changes in the knee joint. This includes lost cartilage and the addition of bone spurs. The latter usually happen when the knee is unstable and the bones react to provide stability. The meniscus spacer of the joint also gets chewed up and the overall internal environment goes from helpful to a harmful toxic stew of chemicals. Finally, we now know that the nerves get in on the act all the way up to your spinal cord. Patients also lose strength and position sense in the knee. With all of these things going on, it’s not a surprise that researchers weren’t sure why exercise seemed to help. Was it helping the cartilage? Perhaps improving the toxic stew?

The new study looked at about 150 patients with knee arthritis in a rehab center who were asked to participate in an exercise program. After measuring pain/function, leg strength, and position sense while the group exercised for about 8 months, the authors used a statistical regression analysis to determine if either leg strength or position sense was independently associated with improved pain. In the end, for each unit of increased strength in the leg, there was a reduction of 2.5 units of pain.

The upshot? While many things may be at work here in reducing pain, several studies have shown that exercise is a simple treatment for arthritis. While it’s true that some patients have too much pain to exercise effectively, this is where therapies like autologous biologics can come in handy. However, for everyone else, just strengthening your quads and hamstrings in a gym may be better than popping a dangerous Motrin pill!

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