Arthritis and the Mind – A Holistic Approach to Healing

The hip ache starts when I’m 52. I’m tossing and turning at night, trying to get comfortable, like a rotisserie chicken. First, on my belly, then my side, then my back, then the other side, and the turning starts again. My husband teases me that I’m cycling all night, but he’s not laughing. Finally, there’s relief with a pillow between my knees, and I fall into a deep sleep.

Arthritis. Who, me?

I managed to keep fit enough to still be a high school PE teacher in my 50s. I first notice the aching hip after an occasional ballet class. My strength seems OK, my flow and balance are still there, but something is weakening in the joints, something I only notice at night.

This was my first serious sensation of aging. Sure, I’ve had grey – rather, silver – strands for a long time now, and real wrinkles join my laugh lines along with that nasty jowly sag I hate. But this ache in my hip was not vanity, this was palpable pain. It hurt and disturbed my already fitful sleep and I wanted it gone, now.

So I began to study my movements in general and the field of arthritis medicine in particular. This is what I learned.

• The body doesn’t last forever. Bones thin, muscles atrophy, strength fades, even for me.

• Our own individual movement patterns, including poor posture, can and will create stress and strain (as well as strength and stability) that can actively break the body down, over time. The longer we live, the longer time we have to be healthy, and, yes, the longer time to become decrepit. Our lifestyle choices help determine our fate. It’s a constant work in progress, to keep active and fit, and to delay the decay.

• Arthritis can have many causes. Mine, I felt, was from a lifetime of dance, training my “turnout” and straining the hip joint. New studies show that, after 45, excessive exercise (emphasis on “excessive”) can cause arthritis. Even wearing athletic shoes as regular footwear increases the likelihood of arthritis in the knees!

• Arthritis is painful. As we age, we lose the fluid and movable space between the bones at the joints, and the bone rubbing against bone causes pain, swelling, stiffness and, ultimately, limited mobility. Limited mobility is bad and leads to, well, death.

• Pain medication is available.  From herbal remedies and rubs to serious narcotics, folks will use whatever works to give relief. What works for me? What’s the most helpful yet healthful?

As a movement therapist, I began to look at these phenomena. What can I actively do to heal the current problem, correct it and anything like it that may arise in the future? What if I consciously began to move, sit and stand in a new way? Could I create space in that hip joint? Could I reduce the swelling and achy feeling through my movement itself?

In my practice with Spacial Dynamics®, a somatic approach to understanding movement, I know that the space surrounding my body is alive and full of living forces that help and even enable my movement. These ideas are core principles in my life’s work, and form the basis of my movement coaching and mentoring.

What about the spaces between the bones of the body? Could those spaces come alive as well? And, would a result be less pain and stiffness?

I experimented with myself and the damn hip. What if, instead of pressing my back towards my leg – in a hamstring stretch, for example – I actively opened the hip? I closed my eyes and envisioned the hip joint. The head of the femur, the curve of the acetabulum, expanding space between them. In doing so, I began to actively move the other way, stretch the leg away from the hip, rather than squeezing the leg into the hip in deep flexion. Space grew instead of strain. From the outside, I looked as though I were doing a common hamstring stretch, nothing fancy or different.. In my reality, I was moving quite differently, actively opening the space. This new way of thinking and moving was actually the opposite of what I had been doing my whole exercising and dancing life!

I changed the way I moved in that hip. From sitting to standing to dancing, I try to create the image of space moving where aching used to live. I still put a pillow between my knees much of the time while I sleep. Even a small pillow seems to release my hips and lower back at the same time, and it feels softer and cozier than my own knees pressed together.

When I bring this concept to my Agile Aging exercise classes for seniors, they are interested right away. Everyone has a bit or a lot of arthritis somewhere, or knows someone who has. We’ve discovered the space in our necks, our jaws, our hands, our feet, our knees and our backs. We’ve gotten stronger and more flexible without strain. We laugh and dance and ask questions and share stories.

We are learning how these new ideas can work in our everyday life, how this new idea of space can help us with our daily chores and with getting around without falling down.

We are aging with agility and grace, with a bounce in our step, a smile on our face, and, for me, the reality of pain-free space in my hip.

Valerie Baadh Garrett, 2010


8 thoughts on “Arthritis and the Mind – A Holistic Approach to Healing

  • February 5, 2010 at 8:35 am

    Rocky taught me to always have the gymnasts work tall. Keep working tall.

  • March 28, 2010 at 9:09 pm

    Hi Valerie,

    Thanks for the kind words on my site. Must be synchronicity. While my lifting and aerobic exercise are OK, my flexibility is not. Really looking forward to getting some of that youthful range of motion back, as my five year old daughter and 11 year old son are sounding the warnings and I need to be prepared, so will look around your site to get started. Mike Logan

    • May 1, 2012 at 2:08 pm

      I’m not sure. I was always under the impression arthritis started in joints that didn’t move much and the small ones first, like your fingers. That being said I have seen misdiagnosis by Dr.’s who have treated a person with MS telling her that her knee problem was due to arthritis. In less than 5 minutes I had the pain gone and all the Dr.’s told her that’s what it was. Specialists in the field don’t understand some of the problems and solutions so getting one answer isn’t always the right answer. I have seen hips that have tightened up from the tendons shortening up. They pull the thigh into the hip and make it hard to move the leg, binds it up. The tendon that does that comes in by the pelvic region and attaches to the pelvic bones. Here is how you can release that tendon if you feel it is what is bothering you: Pelvic tendon: (do in something that allows you easy access to the skin in this area)Lay on your bed with your legs pulled up, bent at the knee so that your feet rest flat on the bed. Run your finger down the crease of your hip and body until you get to around your pelvis. There you should find a bump in the crease. Take that bump between your fingers and thumb and press together or press into the bump as hard as you can. Hold for 30 seconds then slowly lower your leg out to the side. It should go almost all the way to the bed if released. Then release the pressure but hold your leg there for another 30 seconds. Was this answer helpful?

      • May 1, 2012 at 7:55 pm

        Hi, Eslam,

        You are absolutely right that getting one answer to a problem isn’t always the right answer. Sometimes it’s trial and error on different approaches, which can be frustrating when one is in pain and has limited mobility because of it. Trying imagery to help create space within the painful joint can help. PTs even use this technique and we know for sure professional athletes do too. Sometimes just a small change in the way one “wears” one’s body, can provide a huge relief for a chronic situation that might be caused by a lifetime of poor posture or imbalanced movement. But of course, see your doctor, and get other opinions too. Thank you for your comment. Best wishes for continued health and healing!

  • April 11, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    You sound as if you have been reading my mind. I am a formerly very active 49 year old with a hip that has been causing my to re-evaluate and readjust my exercise, my life, for the last 6 months or so. I have been searching for thoughts on creating space in this pesky joint, as it seems to help alot when the physical therapist does that for me. thanks for this promising thought.

  • April 19, 2010 at 11:27 pm

    I love the idea of being able to do old exercises in new ways, and I’d like to start BEFORE I feel the pain of aging in those joints…Some I am already late on (toes)… Hurray for creating space in places we have never considered or visited.

  • February 10, 2012 at 4:07 am

    I really liked how you talked about a “aching hip” from your own personal experience. That does hit home and makes me think about how my own hips will be as I age.

    • May 2, 2012 at 3:44 am

      I am 7o years old & am severe knee pain in both in knees. It seems to more in th inisde of knee joint. I get an electrical sharp that shoods thru my knee whedther I stand, sit, lye done. It just appears at random & is extremely uncomfortable. The mere stand up & walking is constant pain I hang on the wall of my house. Very limited ativity. I think it is the synovial joint fluid in the bursa sac that I think is inflamed & ex-ray indicated some spurs inth tibia part of the bone and Humara top shin part suffers these electical shocks. My knees swell & hurt quite a bit.


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