Action Plan for Osteoarthritis
Stiff, painful joints are typical symptoms of osteoarthritis, also called degenerative joint disease.
Joint pain is caused by a breakdown and destruction of cartilage that allows the bones in a joint to glide over one another, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS). With the cartilage no longer there, pain, swelling and loss of joint motion results.
To relieve pain and increase function, joint replacement surgery is an increasingly popular choice. If your X-rays show there's little to no cartilage cushioning your joints and you've reached a point at which you can't perform everyday activities, such as walking around the block or playing your usual game of tennis, you may be a candidate for joint replacement.
"Talk with your doctor to weigh the risks and benefits," says Patience White, M.D., spokeswoman for the Arthritis Foundation. "It's time to consider surgery when you've reached your personal breaking point, such as no longer being able to walk through the supermarket without suffering tremendous pain."
But if it's not that bad, there's a lot you can do in the meantime. Dr. White suggests the following to decrease pain, improve mobility and protect a sore joint from further injury -- and maybe even avoid surgery.
If you're overweight (your body mass index is 25 or greater), adjust your calorie intake to lose those extra pounds. Even weighing a few pounds more than your recommended weight can create undue wear and tear on major weight-bearing joints, such as knees and hips.
"Because of body mechanics, every pound you gain over your ideal body weight can cause a force on your knees that's four times greater than normal," says Dr. White. "If you lose just five pounds, you'll reduce the force on your knees by 20 pounds."
Moreover, weight loss also can help reduce your pain level, because it reduces the stress on your hips, knees, and back.
"Studies show that if you're overweight, losing just 10 percent of your body weight can reduce the pain you experience by 50 percent," she says.
To prevent further joint deterioration, it's important to be physically active every day because exercise strengthens the muscles surrounding an ailing joint.
"Stronger muscles protect joints by absorbing the force placed upon them," says Dr. White. "They also help hold joints in a better position mechanically so joints don't wear as quickly."
Dr. White recommends moderate physical activity for 30 minutes most days of the week. You can even break it up into three 10-minute increments. Activities such as swimming, walking, cycling, yoga and Pilates are good choices.
If you need help getting started, talk with your doctor. If possible, work with a personal trainer or physical therapist to develop a weight-training or physical activity program that helps maintain muscle strength and flexibility while enhancing joint stability.
These are the types of exercise to consider:
strength exercises - these can be performed with exercise bands, inexpensive devices that add resistance
aerobic activities - to keep your heart and lungs in shape
range of motion activities - to keep your joints limber
agility exercises - to help you maintain daily living skills
neck and back strength exercises - to help keep your spine strong and limber
Check with your health care provider for advice on whether to exercise if a joint is sore or if swelling is present. Ask if you should use pain-relievers such as analgesics or anti-inflammatory medication to make exercising easier, or use ice afterward.
Consider pain meds
To manage joint pain, ask your doctor about taking medication, such as Tylenol (acetaminophen).
If that doesn't help, your doctor may recommend you take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as Advil, Aleve, aspirin or a prescription medication.
"It's important to keep in touch with your doctor regarding the medications you take and your pain and mobility level," Dr. White says. "Working together you can better manage your condition."