What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common type of arthritis. It affects nearly 27 million Americans. This degenerative joint disease is characterized by a breakdown of cartilage — the tissue that cushions the ends of your bones. Cartilage allows your joints to move smoothly. OA usually affects the following areas:

  • hips
  • hands
  • knees
  • lower back
  • neck

Read about how you can relieve OA pain with treatments and lifestyle changes.

Weight loss is a major factor in relieving pain from osteoarthritis. A study from Penn State College of Medicine found people who lost weight through bariatric surgery but received no other OA treatments experienced improvements in quality of life. Their abilities to perform day-to-day tasks and participate in sports improved.

Making dietary changes and exercising are two ways to boost weight loss and ease osteoarthritis pain.

OA pain can make exercising difficult. But studies show that exercise strengthens muscles and tissues around the joint. This 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, MD, assistant professor in the department of orthopedics and rehabilitation at Oregon Health and Sciences University. “It’s a key to losing weight.”

Exercises like aquatics, cycling, and walking can build strength and burn calories.

Icing can help reduce pain and inflammation, especially after a workout. Reusable cold packs are convenient. But they shouldn’t be applied directly to the skin 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’s a good way to manage the symptoms,” Carlson says.

Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is good pain reliever for OA, but it doesn’t address inflammation. Ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve) reduce inflammation and relieve pain. But overusing these can cause liver or kidney problems.

If over-the-counter medications aren’t effective, a doctor might prescribe an analgesic like tramadol (Ultram) to be taken short-term. “Some studies show that dietary supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate are also effective in repairing damaged cartilage,” Carlson says.

Sometimes immobilizing or removing the load from an arthritic joint reduces inflammation and pain. Knee braces help and special splints may help other affected areas. It’s important to note that these devices don’t treat the underlying causes of pain, but they can help ease your symptoms.

A physical therapist can provide exercises and stretches to strengthen muscles and improve your range of motion.

If other methods aren’t successful, a corticosteroid injection might help. It reduces inflammation, which may reduce pain.

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

  • Osteotomy. This consists of realigning your leg to transfer the force of your joint away from the problem area.
  • Bone fusion. This procedure increases stability and reduces pain but eliminates flexibility of the joint.
  • Joint replacement. Replacing your damaged joint surfaces with plastic or metal components may last 20 years and allow you to return to an active lifestyle.

OA can be a challenging condition because it can affect your mobility.

There are a number of treatment options available. Losing weight and exercising are also good for combating OA. Talk with your doctor and remember to stay informed and active.