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How to Manage Your Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis, also called degenerative joint disease happens when the cartilage in a joint breaks down. Cartilage allows the bones in a joint to glide over one another. When the cartilage breaks down, the bones rub together. This causes pain, swelling, and loss of motion. Osteoarthritis most often affects the hands, neck, lower back, knees, and hips.

Your health care provider can help you find ways to reduce pain, move better, and protect your joints from further injury. Changes in your daily activities can also help. These changes may include exercise, pain control, joint protection, and medication. If these don’t help, surgery may be an option.

Weight management

Extra weight can put stress on your joints and increase pain. This happens most often in the weight-bearing joints, such as your hips, knees, and ankles.

Weight loss is not easy, but even losing a small amount of weight can help. Talk with your health care provider about ways to lose weight. Diet changes and exercise can help. A dietician or nutritionist can help you with eating healthy. In some cases, medication or weight loss surgery may help.

Exercise

Exercise is a key part of arthritis care. Exercise strengthens the muscles that support your joints. It also lessens joint pain and stiffness. And, it helps to improve your overall health. You should try to do a variety of exercises to build strength and improve your lung and heart health. All exercises burn calories and can help you lose weight.

Man using resistance band to strengthen his shoulders and arms
A man uses resistance band to strengthen his shoulders and arms.

The types of exercise are:

  • Strengthening exercises. These can be done with exercise bands or resistance bands (inexpensive exercise aids), or with weights.

  • Aerobic activities. These exercises keep your heart and lungs strong. Moderate aerobic activity for 30 minutes most days of the week is recommended. You can even break it up into three 10-minute increments. Activities such as swimming, walking, cycling are good choices.

  • Range of motion activities. These can lessen pain and stiffness and help you move better.

  • Balance exercises. These help you maintain balance and improve your daily living. Yoga and Tai Chi are excellent examples.

Start exercising slowly each time by gently moving your joints. Warm up for at least 5 to 10 minutes before any exercise. Talk with your health care provider:

  • Before starting an exercise program or adding new exercises to your daily routine

  • When a joint becomes painful or swollen

  • About taking pain medication or using ice before or after you exercise

Joint protection

To lessen pain and protect your joints from further damage you should:

  • Balance rest with activity. It’s important to be active and to exercise every day. But, you should rest in between periods of activity.

  • Take care of your joints. There are things you do every day that can make your joint symptoms worse. And, there are better ways of doing those same things. For example:

    • Store heavy kitchen items at waist-height so that you can easily get to them.

    • Use aids like long-handled graspers and jar-openers.

  • Recognize pain. If your joints hurt more than usual, you may have done too much.

  • Sleep. It’s important to get enough sleep each night. Sleep gives your energy to be active during the day. It also helps you to feel better overall. If you are having trouble sleeping, or don’t feel rested when you wake up, talk with your health care provider.

Medication

Over-the-counter and prescription medications can help reduce the pain and stiffness from osteoarthritis. They include:

  • Pills, topical medication (rubbed on the skin), and injections

  • Pain relievers, such as acetaminophen (the main ingredient in Tylenol) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs, like ibuprofen

It's very important that you talk with your health care provider before taking any medication for arthritis. Even medications that are available without prescription can cause serious side effects. Some can make other medical problems worse and interfere with other medications.

Each person reacts differently to these medications. If one medication doesn't work for you, your provider may prescribe a different one.

Pain control

Although medications can help control most arthritis pain, you can also try:

  • Relaxation techniques. Deep breathing, yoga, or easy stretching can help.

  • Cold and heat. Applying ice packs, moist heat, or hot showers and baths can help lessen pain and stiffness. Ask your health care provider what he or she suggests.

  • Other methods. Massage, acupuncture, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation or TENS (a small device that delivers light impulses to the nerves) can also help.

Surgery

If other treatments don’t work for your arthritis, you may need surgery.

  • Arthroscopic surgery. During arthroscopic surgery, the doctor uses a special tool called an arthroscope to see and work inside your joint. It may be done to remove loose or damaged cartilage and bone. It can also be used to smooth or reposition bones.

  • Joint replacement surgery. Joint replacement surgery is when the damaged joint is replaced with new man-made joints. The knee and hip joints are replaced most often.

Talk with your health care provider about the benefits and risks of these procedures.

There are many ways to handle the pain of osteoarthritis. Work with your health care provider to figure out what’s best for you.

Online Medical Reviewer: Holloway, Beth, RN, M.Ed.
Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically-affiliated clinician
Last Review Date: 8/15/2014
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