All About Osteoarthritis and Women

Medically Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD on January 23, 2007
From the WebMD Archives

If you've just been diagnosed with osteoarthritis (OA), you're not alone. Many women past age 50 discover OA is the reason for their creaking knees, aching backs, and sore fingers. Suddenly life is all about osteoarthritis -- but luckily, arthritis doesn't have to take control.

Arthritis is "the most common form of disability. It's also a natural part of aging," says Primal Kaur, MD, director of the Osteoporosis Clinic at Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia.

In the U.S., one in five adults has osteoarthritis -- 24 million women and 17 million men, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Learn more about how disability benefits for degenerative bone disease work.

"I'm constantly telling people that the body is like a car, so there's going to be wear and tear as we grow older," Kaur, an arthritis specialist, tells WebMD. Men typically feel the onset earlier in life than women do, she says. "But after age 55, more women than men will develop it -- and women often have it more severely."

All About Osteoarthritis: What's Going On Here?

Osteoarthritis (OA) is a condition that affects cartilage, the rubbery cushion covering bones in the joints, keeping them flexible. Over time, cartilage begins to stiffen and damages more easily -- and gradually it loses its "shock absorber" qualities. Bones start rubbing against each other, and the pain begins.

Women tend to be plagued by osteoarthritis more than men. Heredity increases the risk: A genetic defect triggering defective cartilage or a joint abnormality can lead to osteoarthritis. "If your mom had knobby fingers, you're more likely to develop arthritis there," says Kaur.

Other risk factors are involved: Obesity puts extra stress on knees and hips, which leads to cartilage breakdown. A sports injury, severe back injury, or broken bone takes a toll on the joints -- and pretty soon, it's all about osteoarthritis.

"Pain is the symptom that gets everyone's attention," Kaur tells WebMD.

13 Tips: Rein in Your Osteoarthritis Pain

Your life doesn't have to be all about osteoarthritis. There's much you can do to enjoy a better quality of life. By learning about your disease -- and making some changes -- you can live well.

1. Lose Weight. If you are overweight or obese, you're putting extra stress on weight-bearing joints. Losing weight lessens the risk of further joint injury. It also increases your mobility.

2. Work on Your Diet. If losing weight is a goal, talk to a dietitian to get on track with healthy eating habits. Also, antioxidant and calcium supplements can boost your bone strength: Vitamin D (400 IU daily) and calcium (1,000-1,200 mg daily). Antioxidant vitamins C and E may also provide bone protection.

3. Stay Active.Exercise is hands-down the best treatment for osteoarthritis. Exercise helps you lose weight, increases flexibility, eases pain, boosts your mood, strengthens your heart, and improves blood flow. Mall walking, swimming, and water aerobics are popular because they are easy on joints. If exercise is painful at first, stay with it... it will get easier, reducing overall pain in the long run. But be sure to talk to your doctor before starting a new fitness or diet plan.

4. Get Strong. Muscles become weak when you have osteoarthritis, and that leads to more pain. By doing exercises to strengthen muscles, you ease the pain and develop greater stability in your joints -- so there's less risk of falls. Also, special exercises can increase the range of motion in your joints. Talk to your physician or physical therapist to be sure you're doing these exercises correctly.

5. Have Fun. Don't let your life be all about osteoarthritis. Get out, have a good time! When you're distracted from the pain, you'll feel happier. Sports, hobbies, volunteer projects, and other activities can take your mind off the pain. If you're having trouble participating in favorite activities, talk to an occupational therapist about your options.

6. Make Adjustments. Sensible changes can lessen the strain on joints and muscles and prevent painful spasms. If you have osteoarthritis in your back, make sure it gets good support when you sit. That means sitting in a chair to read, not reading in bed. If you have arthritis in your hip, it helps to adjust the toilet seat or furniture to a comfortable level.

7. Use Heat and Cold. Heating pads, hot packs, a warm bath or shower, warm wax (paraffin) applications -- these increase blood flow, easing pain and stiffness. Cold packs can reduce inflammation in a sore area. Many people keep bags of ice or frozen vegetables (like peas) on hand. Wrapped in a towel, these cold packs easily mold to fit a sore joint, like a knee.

8. Take a Break. While exercise is great for helping osteoarthritis, overexertion can cause even more pain. It's important to slow down or stop when you need to. Tune in to your body, and learn when you're doing too much.

9. Catch Lots of ZZZs. Life is better when you get a good night's sleep. You feel less pain and cope better overall. If you're having trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor or physical therapist. You may need a better mattress or different sleep position. Taking your medications on a different schedule can also provide more nighttime pain relief. Take a warm bath before bedtime to relax sore muscles.

10. Get a Soothing Massage. For treatment of pain, Americans rate massage as highly as medications. One in five adults got a therapeutic massage last year -- and three-quarters of them would recommend it to others, one survey showed. Massage helps relieve pain by increasing blood flow and warmth in painful areas.

11. Take Drugs Correctly. Non-prescription painkillers like Tylenol or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Advil or Aleve can be effective at relieving osteoarthritis pain. But it's important to take them according to label directions. "A lot of patients take one pill a day and say it's not working," says Kaur. "Before you give up on it, you must take it around the clock as directed."

Creams, rubs, and sprays applied to the skin can also help relieve pain. These can be used in addition to oral painkillers -- but use them as directed, too, to make sure you get maximum benefit. Zostrix, Icy Hot, and Bengay are among the nonprescription topical pain relievers.

12. Alternative Therapy. When conventional pain treatments don't work, many people turn to complementary or alternative therapies. Research shows that acupuncture can help relieve joint pain by stimulating natural, pain-relieving chemicals produced by the nervous system.

Glucosamine and chondroitin are well-known and researched supplements for arthritis. Both are natural substances found in joint fluid. Each is thought to stimulate the increase of cartilage production and reduce inflammation. Studies have had mixed results; one large study found that the supplement had no effect on mild osteoarthritis, but did help with moderate-to-severe arthritis. Another study found that glucosamine slowed progression of osteoarthritis in the knee.

It doesn't hurt to try glucosamine or chondroitin, says Kaur. "If it doesn't work, it's one thing you can cross off your list."

13. Use Assistive Devices. If you feel unstable on your feet -- like you might fall -- it's time for a cane, walker, or knee brace. "Assistive devices help take weight off the joint and decrease pain, in addition to making you feel more stable on your feet," says Kaur.

She cautions: Make sure you select a cane that fits you. Then learn how to use it correctly. "A lot of people don't know how to select a cane -- the correct length of cane," she tells WebMD. "They don't how to hold it, how to use it. You don't use a cane on the same side as the pain. You want to take the load off that side."

Life isn't all about osteoarthritis. That's why the more you know about how to manage pain, the easier you'll manage your arthritis -- and life.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Primal Kaur, MD, arthritis specialist, director, Osteoporosis Clinic, Temple University School of Medicine, Philadelphia. WebMD Medical Reference provided in collaboration with The Cleveland Clinic: "Arthritis: Osteoarthritis Basics." National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Diseases: "Handout on Health: Osteoarthritis." Arthritis Foundation: "The Facts About Arthritis." WebMD Medical News: "Need Pain Relief? Massage Gets High Marks," "Arthritis Dietary Supplements." eMedicineHealth: "Osteoarthritis."

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