You can often manage osteoarthritis with medications, exercises, and the use of supportive devices. If these methods don’t work, surgery may be an option.

Osteoarthritis is a form of arthritis that develops when the protective cartilage at the ends of your bones wears down. Loss of cartilage causes your bones to rub directly against each other, which leads to pain and inflammation.

Medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help reduce symptoms of osteoarthritis. Making lifestyle changes, such as maintaining a moderate weight and exercising regularly, may also help you manage your symptoms.

In this article, we examine how you can care for your osteoarthritis symptoms.

Medications can help reduce pain and inflammation related to osteoarthritis. Medication options include:

  • NSAIDs: NSAIDs are generally the most effective pain medications for osteoarthritis. You can take them orally (by mouth) or topically (applied to the skin). Options include:
  • Corticosteroid injections: Steroid injections block swelling and inflammation in your affected joint. Pain relief from these injections may last for months.
  • Hyaluronic acid injections: Hyaluronic acid helps lubricate your joint. Pain relief may last up to 6 months, but research on their effectiveness is mixed.
  • Capsaicin cream: Capsaicin is a chemical sourced from chili peppers. It reduces pain by blocking the action of a neurotransmitter called “substance P.”

The 2019 American Association of Rheumatology and Arthritis Foundation guidelines don’t recommend acetaminophen (Tylenol) due to its relatively small benefit unless you can’t use nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

Doctors generally don’t typically prescribe opioid pain relievers for osteoarthritis because the medications are highly addictive, but they may prescribe opioids for short-term use to alleviate severe pain.

Maintaining a moderate weight or losing weight, if you have overweight or obesity, can help reduce stress on your back and lower body. Making healthy dietary changes, such as reducing your intake of highly processed foods, may also help reduce inflammation.

In a 2021 review of 30 studies, researchers studied the effect of weight loss on osteoarthritic pain, function, and stiffness. The researchers found evidence that a 1% loss of body weight was linked to about a 2% improvement in these metrics.

Regular exercise can benefit people with osteoarthritis in several ways. Some of these benefits include:

  • strengthening your muscles to support your joints
  • strengthening the tendons and ligaments around your joints
  • helping you maintain a moderate weight
  • increasing the production of chemicals in your body that reduce pain perception
  • improving your joint stability

Many people find it helpful to visit a physiotherapist or occupational therapist who can create a custom exercise program.

Types of exercises that may be beneficial include:

Although regular exercise can be beneficial, too much high impact exercise may worsen your symptoms.

Tai chi and osteoarthritis

Scientists have studied tai chi specifically for managing osteoarthritis. In a 2021 study, researchers found that older adults who had knee osteoarthritis and lived in community homes had better functional fitness after a 12-week tai chi program than adults who only received health education.

In a 2023 review of 6 other studies, researchers concluded that tai chi is an effective nondrug treatment for knee osteoarthritis. Many of the studies they reviewed were of low quality design, and the researchers recommended interpreting the results with caution.

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Supportive devices can help take stress off your joints and may improve your ability to perform daily tasks. Supportive devices for osteoarthritis include:

  • insoles or footwear with shock-absorbing soles, especially for osteoarthritis in your lower body or back
  • splints to help you rest an inflamed joint
  • canes or walkers to help you walk
  • braces to help align and support your joint
  • small devices that may make your life easier, such as:
    • jar openers
    • shoehorns
    • grabbing devices

Doctors generally reserve surgery for cases of osteoarthritis that can’t be cared for with more conservative treatment. Some surgical options include:

  • Arthroscopy (joint repair): During arthroscopic surgery, a surgeon makes a small incision in your knee and removes loose pieces of cartilage.
  • Arthroplasty (joint replacement): A surgeon removes some of the structures in your joint (partial) or the entire joint and surrounding tissue (total) and replaces them with prosthetics made of materials like plastics and metals.
  • Osteotomy: An osteotomy involves removing your bone and reorientating the alignment of your joints.
  • Cartilage restoration: Cartilage restoration involves harvesting cartilage cells and transplanting them into the degenerated part of your joint.
  • Arthrodesis (joint fusion): An arthrodesis involves permanently fusing your joint so that it can’t move. Doctors usually only perform this surgery when other procedures aren’t an option.

Alternative or complementary therapies may help support your primary treatments. These therapies include:

Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage at the ends of your bones wears away. Medications and lifestyle changes can often help reduce your symptoms.

If conservative options don’t help to relieve your symptoms, you may need surgery. The best type of surgery for you depends on the extent and location of your arthritis but often involves replacing part or all of the affected joint.