What is OA?

Osteoarthritis—the most common type of arthritis—affects nearly 27 million Americans. The degenerative joint disease is characterized by a breakdown of cartilage—the tissue that cushions the end of bones and allows them to move smoothly. Typically, OA occurs in hips, hands, knees, lower back, and neck.

Lose weight

A recent study conducted at Penn State College of Medicine found that patients who lost weight but received no other treatments for knee osteoarthritis experienced improvements in quality of life, the ability to perform day-to-day tasks and their capacity to participate in sports activities. “Weight loss is probably the number one factor for osteoarthritic pain,” notes Nathan Wei, M.D., Director of the Arthritis Treatment Center in Frederick, Maryland. He stresses the importance of making dietary changes and exercising.


Unfortunately, OA pain makes it difficult to exercise, but studies show that exercise strengthens muscles and tissues around the cartilage, and can significantly reduce inflammation and pain. “Exercise is a big part of the lifestyle change that’s necessary to deal with OA,” says Nels Carlson, M.D., Assistant Professor in the Department of Orthopedics and Rehabilitation at Oregon Health and Sciences University. “It’s a key to losing weight.” Aquatics, cycling, and walking can build strength and burn calories.

Use cold and hot compresses

Icing can help reduce pain and inflammation, especially after a workout. Reusable cold packs are convenient, though they shouldn’t be applied directly to the skin or for more than 20 minutes at a time. A small heating pad or a few minutes in a hot tub before exercise can loosen stiff joints and make movement easier. “Hot-cold therapy won’t address the underlying issues but it is a good way to manage the symptoms,” Dr. Carlson says.

Take medication and dietary supplements

Studies show that acetaminophen is an effective pain reliever for OA, but it doesn’t address inflammation. Ibuprofen and naproxen reduce inflammation and relieve pain. Overusing these can result in liver or kidney problems. If over-the-counter medications aren’t effective, a doctor might prescribe an analgesic such as Tramadol or stronger painkillers, such as codeine. “Some studies show that dietary supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate are also effective in repairing damaged cartilage,” Dr. Carlson says.

Use braces, splints, inserts, and physical therapy

In some cases, immobilizing or removing the load from an arthritic joint helps alleviate inflammation and pain. Knee braces are effective, but special splints and shoe inserts may help other affected areas. “An assistive device can help with symptoms but it doesn’t address the underlying issue,” Dr. Wei says. “It’s one part of the overall treatment.” A physical therapist can provide exercises and stretches to strengthen muscles and improve range of motion.

Consider the use of shots and injections

If other methods aren’t successful, you might benefit from a corticosteroid injection. It reduces inflammation, which, in turn, may reduce pain. Another option is a procedure called viscosupplementation, where a doctor injects a lubricating fluid called hyaluronic acid in the joint in the knee (the procedure is currently approved for knee OA only). “It creates a buffer between the bones and improves flexibility,” Dr. Wei explains. Currently, researchers are studying the use of hyaluronic acid on other joints.

Undergo surgery

If other methods aren't effective, surgery may be an option. Procedures include:

  • osteotomy: realigning the leg to transfer the force of the joint away from the problem area
  • bone fusion: increases stability and reduces pain, but eliminates flexibility of that joint
  • joint replacement: replacing damaged joint surfaces with plastic or metal components. These implants may last up to 20 years and allow you to return to an active lifestyle.

“The potential for complication from OA surgery is low but there are always risks with any procedure and nothing is 100-percent effective,” Dr. Wei says.

Finding out more

Osteoarthritis can seem like a challenging condition because of how it can affect your mobility. Luckily there are many treatment options available to discuss with your doctor.

As the doctors said, losing weight and exercise are great tools for combating osteoarthritis. Click through another slideshow to learn simple stretches you can do to keep your major joints mobile.

Remember to stay informed, stay active, and stay positive.