Fear of Exercise and Osteoarthritis

Are you afraid of exercise? A new study published in the journal Arthritis Care and Research has determined that many people with knee osteoarthritis (OA) are fearful of embarking on any kind of exercise or physical therapy program despite ample research showing that physical activity is highly beneficial for arthritis patients. This fear, the researchers say, might be doing these patients more harm than osteoarthritis itself.

Why are they afraid? Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill categorized 350 patients with symptomatic knee osteoarthritis by age, sex, race, and education and rated them according to activities of daily living (ADL), depressive symptoms, history of falls and knee injury, family history of knee problems, a balance test, and a measurement known as the Knee Injury and Osteoarthritis Outcome Score (KOOS). The researchers also rated the patients on what’s called the Brief Fear of Movement (BFOM) measurement.

The researchers found that fear of exercise was surprisingly common. They even had a name for this fear — kinesiophobia. They concluded that the patients’ fear of exercise mainly derived from the severe pain and psychological stress associated with osteoarthritis, which can make patients afraid that any kind of movement will only cause further pain — or even lead to injury or re-injury. The problem is that without medically approved physical activity, osteoarthritis patients might only face greater pain, poorer physical function, and both physical and psychological infirmity. The researchers also found that patients with symptoms of depression were the ones most likely to experience kinesiophobia.

These fears can be alleviated, the researchers speculated, by using “targeted intervention.” As they put it, “The relatively high frequency of fear of movement and the association with psychological variables suggest that behavioral and psychological interventions may be important strategies for decreasing fear of movement in order to improve physical activity participation and outcomes in individuals with knee OA.” The researchers plan to investigate ways of identifying strategies that will help osteoarthritis patients get over their fears, but in the meantime, people with osteoarthritis can at least understand that their reluctance to exercise might not be justified but might actually be a phobia.

Want to learn more about treating knee osteoarthritis? Read “Knee Injections Reduce Pain in Knee Osteoarthritis,” “Knee Brace Can Alleviate Osteoarthritis Pain,” and “Silk In Knee Replacements.”

Joseph Gustaitis is a freelance writer and editor based in the Chicago area.

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