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The Basics of Osteoarthritis

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How Is Osteoarthritis Treated?

Osteoarthritis usually is treated by a combination of treatments, including exercise, weight loss if needed, medications, physical therapy with muscle strengthening exercises, hot and cold compresses to the painful joint, removal of joint fluid, injection of medications into the joint, and use of supportive devices such as crutches or canes. Surgery may be helpful to relieve pain when other treatment options have not been effective.

The type of treatment will depend on several factors, including your age, activities and occupation, overall health, medical history, location of your osteoarthritis, and severity of the condition.

How Does Weight and Exercise Impact Osteoarthritis?

Staying at your recommended weight helps prevent osteoarthritis of the knees, hips, and spine, reduces the stress on these weight-bearing joints, and reduces pain in joints already affected. Once you have osteoarthritis, losing weight also can relieve the stress and pain in your knees.

Exercise is important to improve joint movement and to strengthen the muscles that surround the joints. Gentle exercises, such as swimming or walking on flat surfaces, are recommended, because they are less stressful on your joints. Avoid activities that increase joint pain, such as jogging or high impact aerobics. Exercises that strengthen the muscles reduce pain in patients with osteoarthritis, particularly with osteoarthritis of the knee.

What Medications Are Used to Treat Osteoarthritis?

The first step with medication is often over-the-counter pain relievers as needed. These include acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and naproxen (Aleve). Don't take over-the-counter medications for more than 10 days without checking with your doctor. Taking them longer than that increases the chance of side effects. If over-the-counter treatments aren't effective, your doctor may decide to prescribe a stronger anti-inflammatory drug or other medication to help ease the pain. Some medications in the form of creams, rubs, or sprays may be applied over the skin of affected areas to relieve pain. For some people with persistent pain despite these pills or creams, steroids can be injected directly into the joint. These injections can be given several times a year, though some experts believe this may ultimately accelerate joint damage.

Injections of hyaluronic acid directly into the knee joint can relieve pain in some people with osteoarthritis. 

When osteoarthritis pain is severe and other treatments are not working, some doctors will give stronger pain pills, such as narcotics.

Unfortunately, none of these will reverse or slow the progression of joint damage caused by osteoarthritis.

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