What Is The Best Treatment for Osteoarthritis?

Treatment depends on symptoms and severity

A man holds his knee in pain, suffering from osteoarthritis.

Treatment depends on symptoms and severity

As we age, one of the most common health problems that occur is chronic joint pain and stiffness due to arthritis. The most common type is osteoarthritis.

More than 32 million people have osteoarthritis or OA, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It most often affects the hands, hips, knees and spine. Women are more likely than men to get it, especially after age 50. Symptoms range from mild discomfort to disabling pain, swelling and stiffness.

Early diagnosis can help make the condition easier to manage and prevent symptoms from getting worse.

“There is no cure for OA, but there are a number of treatments to manage your symptoms and improve your function,” says Adam Rosen, DO, an orthopedic surgeon at Scripps Clinic Torrey Pines. “Early intervention is the key to slowing the progression of pain and disability.”

Treatments range from weight loss to medications for pain relief to physical therapy and joint replacement surgery. Treatment depends largely on the severity of the condition.

What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is often called the “wear and tear” arthritis. It occurs when the cartilage in the joint wears away due to age or overuse. Trauma can also cause it.

When osteoarthritis happens, it leaves bone exposed resulting in bone rubbing against bone, causing pain and limited mobility.

Osteoarthritis vs. osteoporosis

People often confuse osteoporosis with osteoarthritis, but they’re different. Osteoarthritis is a degeneration of a joint. Osteoporosis is the loss of bone mass.

Osteoporosis is a bone disease that affects more than 10 million Americans age 50 and over. It occurs in men and women, but tends to happen earlier in women, which is one reason more women suffer from fragility fractures.

The risk of osteoporosis can be reduced by not smoking, doing weight-bearing exercises and keeping a healthy diet rich in vitamin D and calcium. A health care provider can assess a patient's vitamin D levels and bone density and provide treatment if needed.

Osteoarthritis in young people

Osteoarthritis is usually seen in older adults. But it is increasing among young people due to obesity as well as overuse and trauma from high-impact activities.

“Osteoarthritis is often thought of as an ‘old person’s disease', but with obesity on the rise, this is no longer the case,” Dr. Rosen says. “While most patients with OA are over the age of 60, we see many patients in their 30s developing the disease for a variety of reasons, including obesity, injury or other conditions.”

Five treatments for osteoarthritis

1. Losing weight

Progression of osteoarthritis may be slowed by losing weight if you’re overweight, which means eating well and exercising.

Losing a single pound removes the equivalent load of three to five pounds on your joints. Losing 10 pounds can eliminate 30 to 50 pounds of pressure on your joints. This can ease pain and slow down the disease.

2. Low-impact exercise

“Exercise is helpful for people with OA, but certain exercises should be modified if they provoke pain,” Dr. Rosen says. “Consider switching from high-impact activities, such as running, to low-impact exercises, such as swimming or using a stationary bike.”

3. Medications for reducing the pain

Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (ibuprofen) are over-the-counter medications that can help reduce stiffness and pain symptoms.

Some patients benefit from cortisone injections given directly into affected joints by a physician.

4. Physical therapy and support

A physical therapist can help with muscle strengthening exercises and give advice.

A walking aid, such as a cane, may also help if the hip or knee are affected. A knee brace can help with swelling and give the knee more support.

5. Surgery

If early treatments don’t work, surgery may be an option, especially for people with advanced osteoarthritis. Joint replacement is a common surgery with hips and knees as the most commonly replaced joints.

“Treatment with surgery depends on a person’s age, activity level, health condition and the severity of their osteoarthritis,” says Dr. Rosen, who specializes in knee and hip replacement.

“Surgery is usually the last resort when other approaches have failed,” he says. “Fortunately, advances in surgery, pain management and rehabilitation have made it safer and more effective.”

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