How Is Osteoarthritis Treated?

Most successful treatment programs involve a combination of treatments tailored to the patient’s needs, lifestyle and health. Osteoarthritis treatment has four general goals:

  • Improve joint care through rest and exercise.
  • Maintain an acceptable body weight.
  • Control pain with medicine and other measures.
  • Achieve a healthy lifestyle.


Treatment Approaches to Osteoarthritis

  • Exercise
  • Weight control
  • Rest and joint care
  • Pain relief techniques
  • Medicines
  • Alternative therapies
  • Surgery


Osteoarthritis treatment plans often include ways to manage pain and improve function. Such plans can involve exercise, rest and joint care, pain relief, weight control, medicines, surgery and nontraditional treatment approaches.

Exercise: Research shows that exercise is one of the best treatments for osteoarthritis. Exercise can improve mood and outlook, decrease pain, increase flexibility, improve the heart and blood flow, help maintain a healthy weight and promote general physical fitness. Exercise is also inexpensive and, if done correctly, has few negative side effects. The amount and form of exercise will depend on which joints are involved, how stable the joints are, and whether a joint replacement has already been done. (See Be a Winner! Practice Self-Care and Keep a “Good-Health Attitude.”)


On the Move: Fighting Osteoarthritis With Exercise
You can use exercises to keep strong and limber, extend your range of movement and reduce your weight. Some different types of exercise include the following:

Strength exercises: These can be performed with exercise bands, inexpensive devices that add resistance.
Aerobic activities: These help keep your cardiovascular system in shape.
Range of motion activities: These keep your joints limber.
Agility exercises: These can help you maintain daily living skills.
Neck and back strength exercises: These can help you keep your spine strong and limber.

Ask your doctor or physical therapist what exercises are best for you. Ask for guidelines on exercising when a joint is sore or if swelling is present. Also, check if you should use pain-relieving drugs, such as analgesics or anti-inflammatories (also called NSAIDs) to make exercising easier, or use ice afterwards.


Rest and joint care: Treatment plans include regularly scheduled rest. Patients must learn to recognize the body’s signals, and know when to stop or slow down, which prevents pain caused by overexertion. Some patients find that relaxation techniques, stress reduction and biofeedback help. Some use canes and splints to protect joints and take pressure off them. Splints or braces provide extra support for weakened joints. They also keep the joint in proper position during sleep or activity. Splints should be used only for limited periods because joints and muscles need to be exercised to prevent stiffness and weakness. An occupational therapist or a doctor can help the patient get a properly fitting splint.

Non-drug pain relief: People with osteoarthritis may find non-drug ways to relieve pain. Warm towels, hot packs, or a warm bath or shower to apply moist heat to the joint can relieve pain and stiffness. In some cases, cold packs (a bag of ice or frozen vegetables wrapped in a towel can relieve pain or numb the sore area. (Check with a doctor or physical therapist to find out if heat or cold is the best treatment.) Water therapy in a heated pool or whirlpool also may relieve pain and stiffness. For osteoarthritis in the knee, patients may wear insoles or cushioned shoes to redistribute weight and reduce joint stress.

Weight control: Osteoarthritis patients who are overweight or obese need to lose weight. Weight loss can reduce stress on weight-bearing joints and limit further injury. A dietitian can help patients develop healthy eating habits. A healthy diet and regular exercise help reduce weight.

Medicines: Doctors prescribe medicines to eliminate or reduce pain and to improve functioning. Doctors consider a number of factors when choosing medicines for their patients with osteoarthritis. Two important factors are the intensity of the pain and the potential side effects of the medicine. Patients must use medicines carefully and tell their doctors about any changes that occur.

The following types of medicines are commonly used in treating osteoarthritis:

  • Acetaminophen: Acetaminophen is a pain reliever (for example, Tylenol) that does not reduce swelling. Acetaminophen does not irritate the stomach and is less likely than nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to cause long-term side effects. Research has shown that acetaminophen relieves pain as effectively as NSAIDs for many patients with osteoarthritis.
    Warning: People with liver disease, people who drink alcohol heavily, and those taking blood-thinning medicines or NSAIDs should use acetaminophen with caution.

    * Note: Brand names included in this booklet are provided as examples only. Their inclusion does not mean they are endorsed by the National Institutes of Health or any other Government agency. Also, if a certain brand name is not mentioned, this does not mean or imply that the product is unsatisfactory.

  • NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs): Many NSAIDs are used to treat osteoarthritis. Patients can buy some over the counter (for example Advil, Motrin IB, Aleve, ketoprofen). Others require a prescription. All NSAIDs work similarly: they fight inflammation and relieve pain. However, each NSAID is a different chemical, and each has a slightly different effect on the body.

    Side effects: NSAIDs can cause stomach irritation or, less often, they can affect kidney function. The longer a person uses NSAIDs, the more likely he or she is to have side effects, ranging from mild to serious. Many other drugs cannot be taken when a patient is being treated with NSAIDs because NSAIDs alter the way the body uses or eliminates these other drugs. Check with your health care provider or pharmacist before you take NSAIDs in addition to another medication. Also, NSAIDs sometimes are associated with serious gastrointestinal problems, including ulcers, bleeding, and perforation of the stomach or intestine. People over age 65 and those with any history of ulcers or gastrointestinal bleeding should use NSAIDs with caution.

    COX-2 inhibitors (Celebrex®): A class of drugs that are now being used to treat osteoarthritis. These medicines reduce inflammation similarly to traditional NSAIDs, but they cause fewer gastrointestinal side effects. However, these medications occasionally are associated with harmful reactions ranging from mild to severe. (See Current Research.)

  • Other medications: Doctors may prescribe several other medicines for osteoarthritis, including the following:
  1. Topical pain-relieving creams, rubs, and sprays (for example, capsaicin cream), which are applied directly to the skin.
  2. Mild narcotic painkillers, which–although very effective–may be addictive and are not commonly used.
  3. Corticosteroids, powerful anti-inflammatory hormones made naturally in the body or manmade for use as medicine. Corticosteroids may be injected into the affected joints to temporarily relieve from arthritis pain. This is a short-term measure, generally not recommended for more than two or three treatments per year. Oral corticosteroids should not be used to treat osteoarthritis.
  4. Hyaluronic acid, a medicine for joint injection, used to treat osteoarthritis of the knee. This substance is a normal component of the joint, involved in joint lubrication and nutrition.


Questions To Ask Your Doctor or Pharmacist About Medicines

  • How often should I take this medicine?
  • Should I take this medicine with food or between meals?
  • What side effects can I expect?
  • Should I take this medicine with the other prescription medicines I take?
  • Should I take this medicine with the over-the-counter medicines I take?


Most medicines used to treat osteoarthritis have side effects, so it is important for people to learn about the medicines they take. Even nonprescription drugs should be checked. Several groups of patients are at high risk for side effects from NSAIDs, such as people with a history of peptic ulcers or digestive tract bleeding, people taking oral corticosteroids or anticoagulants (blood thinners), smokers, and people who consume alcohol. Some patients may be able to help reduce side effects by taking some medicines with food. Others should avoid stomach irritants such as alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine. Some patients try to protect their stomachs by taking other medicines that coat the stomach or block stomach acids. These measures help, but they are not always completely effective.

Surgery: For many people, surgery helps relieve the pain and disability of osteoarthritis. Surgery may be performed to:

  • Remove loose pieces of bone and cartilage from the joint if they are causing mechanical symptoms of buckling or locking
  • Resurface (smooth out) bones
  • Reposition bones
  • Replace joints.

Surgeons may replace affected joints with artificial joints called a prosthesis. These joints can be made from metal alloys, high-density plastic, and ceramic material. They can be joined to bone surfaces by special cements. Artificial joints can last 10 to 15 years or longer. About 10 percent of artificial joints may need revision. Surgeons choose the design and components of prosthesis according to their patient’s weight, sex, age, activity level and other medical conditions.

The decision to use surgery depends on several things. Both the surgeon and the patient consider the patient’s level of disability, the intensity of pain, the interference with the patient’s lifestyle, the patient’s age and occupation. Currently, more than 80 percent of osteoarthritis surgery cases involve replacing the hip or knee joint. After surgery and rehabilitation, the patient usually feels less pain and swelling and can move more easily.

Nontraditional Approaches: Among the alternative therapies used to treat osteoarthritis are the following:

  • Acupuncture: Some people have found pain relief using acupuncture (the use of fine needles inserted at specific points on the skin). Preliminary research shows that acupuncture may be a useful component in an osteoarthritis treatment plan for some patients. (See Current Research.)
  • Folk remedies: Some patients seek alternative therapies for their pain and disability. Some of these alternative therapies have included wearing copper bracelets, drinking herbal teas, and taking mud baths. While these practices are not harmful, some can be expensive. They also cause delays in seeking medical treatment. To date, no scientific research shows these approaches to be helpful in treating osteoarthritis.
  • Nutritional supplements: Nutrients such as glucosamine and chondroitin have been reported to improve the symptoms of people with osteoarthritis, as have certain vitamins. Additional studies are being carried out to further evaluate these claims. (See Current Research.)


Health Professionals Who Treat OsteoarthritisMany types of health professionals care for people with osteoarthritis:

  • Primary care physicians. Doctors who treat patients before they are referred to other specialists in the health care system.
  • Rheumatologists. Medical doctors who specialize in treating arthritis and related conditions that affect joints, muscles, and bones.
  • Orthopaedists. Doctors who specialize in treatment of and surgery for bone and joint diseases.
  • Physical therapists. Health professionals who work with patients to improve joint function.
  • Occupational therapists. Health professionals who teach ways to protect joints, minimize pain, and conserve energy.
  • Dietitians. Health professionals who teach ways to use a good diet to improve health and maintain a healthy weight.
  • Nurse educators. Nurses who specialize in helping patients understand their overall condition and implement their treatment plans.
  • Physiatrists (rehabilitation specialists). Doctors who help patients make the most of their physical potential.
  • Licensed acupuncture therapists. Health professionals who reduce pain and improve physical functioning by inserting fine needles into the skin at various points on the body.
  • Psychologists. Health professionals who help patients cope with difficulties in the home and workplace resulting from their medical conditions.
  • Social workers. Professionals who assist patients with social challenges caused by disability, unemployment, financial hardships, home health care, and other needs resulting from their medical conditions.


Be a Winner! Practice Self-Care and Keep a “Good-Health Attitude”

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Be sure to visit the Glucosamine Product Guide for a review of commercially available glucosamine products.