Treatment Goals: Manage Pain, Improve Function
Osteoarthritis treatment plans often include ways to manage pain and improve function. Such plans can include exercise, rest and joint care, pain relief, weight control, medicines, surgery, and non-traditional treatment approaches.
Current treatments for osteoarthritis can relieve symptoms such as pain and disability, but right now there are no treatments that can cure osteoarthritis.
Exercise: One of the Best Treatments
Exercise is one of the best treatments for osteoarthritis. It can improve mood and outlook, decrease pain, increase flexibility, and help you maintain a healthy weight.
The amount and form of exercise will depend on which joints are involved, how stable the joints are, whether or not the joint is swollen, and whether a joint replacement has already been done. Ask your doctor or physical therapist what exercises are best for you
(Watch the video to learn more about how exercise can help people with osteoarthritis. To enlarge the video, click the brackets in the lower right-hand corner. To reduce the video, press the Escape (Esc) button on your keyboard.)
The following types of exercise are part of a well-rounded arthritis treatment plan.
- Strengthening exercises. These exercises strengthen muscles that support joints affected by arthritis. They can be performed with weights or with exercise bands, inexpensive devices that add resistance.
- Aerobic activities. These are exercises, such as brisk walking or low-impact aerobics, that get your heart pumping and can keep your lungs and circulatory system in shape.
- Range-of-motion activities. These keep your joints limber.
- Balance and agility exercises. These help you maintain your balance and reduce the risk of falling.
If you are overweight or obese, you should try to lose weight. Weight loss can reduce stress on weight-bearing joints, limit further injury, increase mobility, and reduce the risk of associated health problems. A dietitian can help you develop healthy eating habits. A healthy diet and regular exercise help reduce weight.
Rest and Relief from Stress on Joints
Treatment plans include regularly scheduled rest. You must learn to recognize the body’s signals, and know when to stop or slow down. This will prevent the pain caused by overexertion.
Although pain can make it difficult to sleep, getting proper sleep is important for managing arthritis pain. If you have trouble sleeping, you may find that relaxation techniques, stress reduction, and biofeedback can help. Timing medications to provide maximum pain relief through the night can also help. If joint pain interferes with your ability to sleep or rest, consult your doctor.
Some people find relief from special footwear and insoles that can reduce pain and improve walking or from using canes to take pressure off painful joints. They may use splints or braces to provide extra support for joints and/ or keep them in proper position during sleep or activity. Splints should be used only for limited periods of time because joints and muscles need to be exercised to prevent stiffness and weakness. If you need a splint, an occupational therapist or a doctor can help you get a properly fitted one.
Non-drug Pain Relief and Alternative Therapies
People with osteoarthritis may find many nondrug ways to relieve pain. Below are some examples.
- Heat and cold. Heat or cold (or a combination of the two) can be useful for joint pain. Heat can be applied in a number of different ways -- with warm towels, hot packs, or a warm bath or shower -- to increase blood flow and ease pain and stiffness. In some cases, cold packs (bags of ice or frozen vegetables wrapped in a towel), which reduce inflammation, can relieve pain or numb the sore area. (Check with a doctor or physical therapist to find out if heat or cold is the best treatment.)
- Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). TENS is a technique that uses a small electronic device to direct mild electric pulses to nerve endings that lie beneath the skin in the painful area. TENS may relieve some arthritis pain. It seems to work by blocking pain messages to the brain and by modifying pain perception.
- Massage. In this pain-relief approach, a massage therapist will lightly stroke and/or knead the painful muscles. This may increase blood flow and bring warmth to a stressed area. However, arthritis-stressed joints are sensitive, so the therapist must be familiar with the problems of the disease.
- Acupuncture. Some people have found pain relief using acupuncture, a practice in which fine needles are inserted by a licensed acupuncture therapist at specific points on the skin. Scientists think the needles stimulate the release of natural, pain-relieving chemicals produced by the nervous system. A large study supported by the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) revealed that acupuncture relieves pain and improves function in knee osteoarthritis, and it serves as an effective complement to standard care.
- Nutritional supplements, such as glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate have been reported to improve the symptoms of people with osteoarthritis, as have certain vitamins. Additional studies have been carried out to further evaluate these claims. It is unknown whether they might change the course of disease.
- Folk remedies. These include the wearing of copper bracelets, following special diets, and rubbing WD-40 on joints to “lubricate” them. Although these practices may or may not be harmful, no scientific research to date shows that they are helpful in treating osteoarthritis. They can also be expensive, and using them may cause people to delay or even abandon useful medical treatment.
For general information on alternative therapies, see the Complementary Health Approaches topic.
Doctors consider a number of factors when choosing medicines for their patients. In particular, they look at the type of pain the patient may be having and any possible side effects from the drugs.
For pain relief, doctors usually start with acetaminophen because the side effects are minimal. If acetaminophen does not relieve pain, then non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen and naproxen may be used. Some NSAIDs are available over the counter, while more than a dozen others, including a subclass called COX-2 inhibitors, are available only with a prescription.
Other medications, including corticosteroids, hyaluronic acid, and topical creams are also used.
Reduce the Risks of NSAID Use
Most medicines used to treat osteoarthritis have side effects, so it is important for people to learn about the medicines they take. For example, people over age 65 and those with any history of ulcers or stomach bleeding should use non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, with caution.
There are measures you can take to help reduce the risk of side effects associated with NSAIDs. These include taking medications with food and avoiding stomach irritants such as alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine. In some cases, it may help to take another medication along with an NSAID to coat the stomach or block stomach acids. Although these measures may help, they are not always completely effective.
For more tips on how older adults can avoid side effects, see Side Effects in the Taking Medicines topic.
For many people, surgery helps relieve the pain and disability of osteoarthritis. Surgery may be performed to achieve one or more of the following goals.
- Removal of loose pieces of bone and cartilage from the joint if they are causing symptoms of buckling or locking (arthroscopic debridement).
- Repositioning of bones (osteotomy).
- Resurfacing (smoothing out) bones (joint resurfacing).
Surgeons may replace affected joints with artificial joints called prostheses. These joints can be made from metal alloys, high-density plastic, and ceramic material. Some prostheses are joined to bone surfaces with special cements. Others have porous surfaces and rely on the growth of bone into that surface (a process called biologic fixation) to hold them in place. Artificial joints can last 10 to 15 years or longer. Surgeons choose the design and components of prostheses according to their patient’s weight, sex, age, activity level, and other medical conditions.
Joint replacement advances in recent years have included the ability, in some cases, to replace only the damaged part of the knee joint, leaving undamaged parts of the joint intact, and the ability to perform hip replacement through much smaller incisions than previously possible.
Deciding on Surgery
The decision to use surgery depends on several factors, including the patient’s age, occupation, level of disability, pain intensity, and the degree to which arthritis interferes with his or her lifestyle. After surgery and rehabilitation, the patient usually feels less pain and swelling and can move more easily.