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Osteoarthritis, the wear-and-tear form of arthritis, affects one in two Americans during the course of their lifetime. Marked by pain, swelling, and reduced motion in the joints, OA typically strikes the hands, knees, hips or spine -- but any joint is at risk.

Does this mean you are a sitting duck? Not by a long shot. Although there are no drugs to alter the course of OA once the process is set in motion, many medications and therapies can help you feel better and stay active.  

Managing Your Joint Pain

“The three most common OA culprits are excess weight, joint misalignment, or an injury such as a tear in one of the knee ligaments,” says Howard Hillstrom, PhD. He leads the Leon Root, MD, Motion Analysis Laboratory at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.

These are not mutually exclusive. “It is possible to have a double- or triple-whammy, such as being obese and having misaligned hips, knees, or ankles,” he says. When any of your joints are not aligned, it places more stress on the joint.

“Matching the right treatment with the suspected origin from the start will lead to more success,” he says. “Let’s say a woman has never had an injury, but she is 50 pounds overweight, and it hurts her the most when she walks downstairs,” he says. In this case, weight loss and exercise are the recommended treatments.

Weight Loss and OA

Weight loss and exercise are underrated OA treatments, agrees David Pisetsky, MD. He is chief of rheumatology at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. “Before we even talk about medication, we want you to exercise more and lose weight if you need to.”

And we are not talking about massive weight loss. “Losing 5% to 10% of body weight is reasonable,” he says. Research has shown that for each pound of body weight lost, there is a 4-pound reduction in knee joint stress among overweight and obese people with knee OA.

Medication for OA Pain Relief

Weight loss and exercise will certainly help unload stress on the joints and reduce pain, but medications are often needed to break the OA pain cycle.

The first step with medication is often over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen. You can take them occasionally, as needed, for pain. Don’t take more than recommended on the label, as that may increase the risk of side effects.

If you find yourself needing over-the-counter pain relievers on most days, check with your doctor. A prescription anti-inflammatory drug may better ease your pain and swelling. Injections of strong anti-inflammatory steroids directly into specific joints are also effective for many but can be used only every few months. More frequent use may damage the joint cartilage.