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Seniors: Not ready to slow down?

Armen Hareyan's picture

U-M expert advises active seniors to use caution, be on the look-out for wear and tear injuries to your knees, shoulders and other aging joints

ANN ARBOR, MI - Charles Witke is an avid walker, dog trainer and gym member intent on staying in shape by being active every day. And at age 73, he doesn't let anything, including arthritis or a shoulder injury, slow him down.

Witke is just one of an increasing number of senior citizens who refuse to let age stand in the way of athletics and physical fitness.

While these senior athletes are taking gyms and sports arenas across America by storm with the mentality and ambition of athletes half their age, their aging shoulders, knees and muscles may be paying the ultimate price.

That's why it is so important for senior athletes to find the appropriate level of activity to prevent injury, especially if they have arthritis or are genetically predisposed to wear and tear injuries involving their joints, says James Carpenter, M.D., chair of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Michigan Health System.

"Older athletes always need to keep their aging joints in mind when they take on new activities or increase their activity level to avoid injury," he advises. "It's much better to remain active at a healthy level than to work too hard and become injured or to give up activities altogether."

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Carpenter and his colleagues tend to see the first signs of wear and tear injury in active adults between the ages of 50 and 60. Most often, these injuries involve the knee, a major weight-bearing joint that tends to take the brunt of physical activity over the years, and the shoulder.

With the knee, the most common wear and tear injury is to the meniscus cartilage, a small structure between the two bones of the knee. And by age 60, Carpenter says, about 60 percent of the population will have experienced a tear or injury to the meniscus cartilage. Fortunately, though, most injuries to this structure are not painful or symptomatic.

Shoulders also are at risk for wear and tear injury, particularly the rotator cuff, a series of tendons around the shoulder that can wear thin and even tear with sudden movements or falls. For nearly half of seniors with torn rotator cuffs, the injury can be painful or symptomatic, something Witke knows about all-too-well.

"I had a lot of pain in my arm, especially at night," he recalls of his torn rotator cuff. "It was difficult to sleep and I had range of motion problems. I couldn't even get my wallet out of my back pants pocket."

Surprisingly, though, in many cases like Witke's, sports are not to blame for a rotator cuff injury. Typically, Carpenter says, such injuries are simply the result of a senior's daily activity, putting on shoes or just extending the arm too far when reaching for objects.

To alleviate some of his discomfort and pain, and to regain his range of motion following his injury, Witke came to the MedSport, the U-M Health System's comprehensive Sports Medicine Program, for therapy.

"The rehab has been very good for me. It's allowed me, through the exercises I do here and at home, to sleep through the night without discomfort and regain a good deal of the motion that I didn't have before," says Witke. "I want to get back to as much activity as I had with that arm before this happened, and I think I am