Taking Osteoarthritis Into Your Own Hands

Explaining osteoarthritis management through lifestyle changes and medication

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

Osteoarthritis (OA) can disrupt many aspects of day-to-day living. But there's a lot that patients can do to stay mobile and active. If you have OA, here's how you can take joint care into your own hands.

OA is the most common form of arthritis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 27 million Americans have OA.

Although OA can be painful, proper treatment and lifestyle changes can slow the progression of the disease and help improve mobility.

Physical activity, especially for OA patients who are overweight or obese, is particularly important for relieving symptoms and slowing disease progression.

OA develops due to wear and tear on the joints. The flexible cartilage between bones and joints can eventually wear down and decrease in volume.

The most common joints that OA affects are knees, hips, hands, neck, back and ankles.

The risk of developing OA increases sharply for people over the age of 45, as older adults have experienced more wear on their joints.

People who are overweight or obese are also more likely to have OA, as the additional weight puts more pressure on joints. Knee OA in particular is common among overweight and obese people.

Due to the aging baby boomer population and increasing rates of obesity, arthritis is on the rise in America, according to the Mayo Clinic.

People who have jobs or play sports that require constant stress on a joint may also develop OA if those repetitive movements cause the cartilage to wear down.

Parents also can pass down OA risk to their children. According to Dr. Shreyasee Amin, a Mayo Clinic rheumatologist, OA in a parent increases their child's risk, especially for hand OA.

Additionally, people with previous injuries to a joint are more likely to later experience OA in that joint.

What are the symptoms of OA?

The first OA symptom that people usually notice is pain. Using a joint affected by OA may hurt because the cartilage is not fully protecting the joint anymore.

Joints also may become stiff and less flexible, especially after waking.

Some OA patients develop tiny lumps of bone, called bone spurs, that grow on the joint.

Especially if it is not treated, OA can cause weakness, decreased mobility and disability.

For most OA patients, the symptoms begin gradually. Initially, pain and stiffness may be uncomfortable but bearable. But over time, certain tasks like opening a jar, writing a letter or even getting out of a chair can become painful and difficult.

Managing osteoarthritis symptoms

Although there is no cure for OA, it is possible to treat symptoms and prevent OA from becoming worse.

Healthy lifestyle changes are one of the most important ways to take control of your OA.

Joint pain and stiffness often causes OA patients to reduce their level of activity and become sedentery. However, exercise can help stall the disease progression and keep pain in check.

Try an exercise that is easy on the joints and does not over-stress the affected area.

Yoga, swimming and water aerobics are all activities that can relieve pain. Ask your doctor to help you create a personalized fitness plan.

For overweight or obese patients, exercise can also assist with shedding extra pounds, which significantly reduces pressure on hip and knee joints.

Gentle stretches are another helpful tool for managing OA symptoms. Stretching joints can relieve stiffness and help improve mobility.

Your doctor may also recommend a physical therapist to create personalized exercises that will improve flexibility and strength.

Medical treatments for OA

When lifestyle changes alone are not enough to manage OA symptoms, other treatments can help.

Talk to your doctor about using pain relievers like acetaminophen (brand name Tylenol) or an NSAID like ibuprofen.

Cortisone shots are injections of steroids that relieve the pain around the joint. Lubrication shots can act as additional cushioning for joints with less cartilage.

For patients with severe OA that causes very limited mobility, a joint replacement surgery may be the best treatment.

Joint replacement surgeries are usually used for patients with knee or hip OA. During the procedure, the surgeon removes damaged joints and replaces them with prosthetic, artificial joints.

Joint replacement surgery can be very helpful for some patients with advanced OA. However, surgery also comes with a lengthy healing period and certain risks like infection.

Additionally, since artificial joints can also become worn down, it is important for OA surgery patients to continue making healthy lifestyle changes.

Beat OA before it starts

The best way to manage OA symptoms is to stop them before they start.

Carrying extra body weight increases the load that your knees and hips bear. Therefore, maintaining a normal body weight through a healthy diet and regular exercise will reduce your risk of OA and keep your joints flexible.

If you do find yourself experiencing tenderness and pain in your joints, talk to your doctor to see if you have OA.

When you visit your health care practitioner, make sure you have a record of the medicines and supplements you take, your family's health history and a description of your symptoms.

Review Date: 
February 20, 2014