How To Stay Active Despite Injury: Fitness for Seniors

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active adults doing fitness in virginiaToday’s baby boomers and seniors are bucking a long-standing belief that as you age, you are to slow down. More people, even into their 80s, are remaining active in recreational sports and regularly exercising as they age, while others are picking up a sport for the first time in retirement.

With an increase in activity comes a greater likelihood of injuries. But don’t expect seniors to be scared off by this. Injuries, instead, have become temporary roadblocks to a commitment they have made to live an active and healthy life.

Throughout the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, senior leagues in softball, soccer, and baseball accommodate seniors who desire to maintain an active lifestyle and who continue to play for the thrill of competition. Walking, jogging and other aerobic activities remain popular forms of exercise for others.

The fact that seniors as a whole are not slowing down is certainly encouraging news. But while exercise and physical activity is important to maintain throughout a person’s life, the older a person gets the more prone he or she is to sustaining injuries to joints, muscles and bones.

Dr. Raymond Thal is an orthopedic surgeon with Town Center Orthopedic Associates in Reston. He has noticed a growing trend among his patients: More seniors are seeking treatment for their sports- and activity-related injuries. Contrary to years past, common knee and shoulder injuries are not sidelining seniors for good, Dr. Thal said. Instead of quitting many seniors are opting for treatment, which sometimes requires surgery, so that they may continue to pursue their passion for playing or staying active.

“Attitudes are changing among those in their 50s, 60s, 70s and even 80s,” Dr. Thal said. “In many cases, if a patient’s choice is to either quit playing because the pain it too great or have surgery and fix the problem, they choose surgery. That was much less common 20 or 30 years ago.”

Dr. Thal is a leading sports medicine expert in the Washington D.C. area, and serves as a team physician for the Washington Redskins. He cites advancements in orthopedic medicine as a reason why more seniors choose to undergo surgery. Arthroscopic surgery, for example, is preferred today for repairing injuries to a person’s shoulder or knee. It is a less invasive method that requires smaller incisions and less tissue trauma.

“Arthroscopic surgery allows patients to recover faster,” Dr. Thal said. “More people are willing to undergo surgery because they can recover in less time and they experience less pain. That means they will be back on the playing field that much quicker.”

For example, a common injury among softball and baseball players is a rotator cuff tear in the athlete’s shoulder. Surgery to repair this injury usually required a hospital stay and potentially six months of recovery time. Today, arthroscopic surgery to repair a rotator cuff involves an outpatient stay (in and out of the hospital on the same day) and allows athletes to return to activity in much less time.

Undergoing surgery is never an easy decision to make, but it’s a decision that more and more active baby boomers and seniors commonly face.

In 2000, at age 64, Eddie Horstkamp tore his rotator cuff. The injury jeopardized the Annandale, VA man’s active lifestyle. Debilitated and in tremendous pain, he didn’t hesitate to undergo surgery with Dr. Thal.

“I would have never played again had I not had my rotator cuff fixed,” Horstkamp said. “The pain was too great. I wanted to get treated quickly, so that I could compete again.”

Horstkamp also had arthroscopic surgery on his knee in 2002 to remove bone chips. Since then, he has competed as frequently and as intensely as he ever has. Just last year he helped his softball team from Fairfax, VA, the Virginia Cavaliers, win a national title in the 65-and-over division.

“I feel great,” said Horstkamp, who at 69 continues to play hard, participating on three softball teams and in a recreational basketball league.

Injuries occur in many ways. Dr. Thal sees patients who have reaggravated an old injury, who sustain an injury on the field or court, who have lived with aches and pains that become unbearable during an athletic event, and those who sustain injuries because they rush too quickly into athletic activity.

Dr. Thal points out that non-surgical treatment is often effective and should be considered first for most injuries. When non-operative treatments fail, surgery can often help to decrease pain and get the athlete back in the game. He discusses all treatment options regarding a given injury with his patients, always first exploring physical therapy, medication, and other nonsurgical treatment methods.

“We help the patient to select the best treatment option for the given injury,” Dr. Thal said. Maybe your activity level has dropped off as you’ve aged, or you haven’t been very active your entire life. It’s not too late, says Dr. Thal, to get started or to resume exercising or competing. Regular exercise can actually help reduce some of the pain in your joints as well as the progression of conditions associated with aging. Before you begin, talk to your doctor about what you should, or shouldn’t, do. Your doctor can help you tailor a program to your own level of ability and needs.

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