Osteoarthritis: When Your Doctor Should Help

Medically Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on February 12, 2024
3 min read

You don’t have to deal with osteoarthritis (OA) pain on your own. Your regular doctor, arthritis specialists, physical therapists, and other health professionals can prescribe treatments to help.

They can help you understand the right medicines, exercises, and other therapies that can ease your symptoms and keep you feeling good.  Know when to call on them for help.

Only your doctor can be sure that your symptoms are caused by OA and not another condition. It’s important to get a diagnosis from a doctor so you can use the right treatments.

If your joints are hot to the touch, red, or swollen, see your doctor right away. Those are signs that your joint is inflamed. Your doctor can drain any fluid that has built up in your joint, test the fluid to make sure something else isn’t causing the pain, and give you a steroid shot to ease your symptoms if you need it.

Also, see your doctor if you notice these signs that you’re OA is getting worse:

  • You have bony spurs or bumps on your joint.
  • Your joint starts to look deformed or out of line.
  • It locks or buckles when you use it.
  • You hear it crack, pop, or grind when you move it.

If you hurt so much that you can’t do daily tasks, get through your workday, or sleep well at night, it’s time to see your doctor. If over-the-counter pain relievers and home remedies aren’t working, you may need prescription medication to ease your pain. Your doctor can also inject a steroid into your joint to help with pain and swelling.

Osteoarthritis may get worse over time. Cartilage wears away, and the bones in your joint rub together when you move. At this stage, you may need to see an orthopedic surgeon to see if you need a total joint replacement or other surgery.

As OA gets worse, your joint may no longer work well. You can’t do daily tasks like get dressed or open a jar. You can’t climb stairs or move around. If that happens, it’s time to see your doctor, physical therapist, or a specialist like:

  • An orthopedic surgeon to replace a joint that no longer works
  • Rheumatologists, who have special training in arthritis treatment
  • Physiatrists, who specialize in rehabilitation and can work with you to get your joint working again
  • Podiatrists, who treat foot or ankle problems and do some minor foot surgeries

You may need a cane or walker to help you get around or to support your joint. Your physical therapist can prescribe the right one for you and show you how to use it.

An occupational therapist (OT) can help you adapt the way you do your job or get around the house. They can rearrange your home or office to suit your needs.

When your joints are stiff and sore, the last thing you may want to do is move around. But exercise can ease your pain and make you more flexible.

But before you start a new exercise plan, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor. They can make sure the activity is safe for your joints and overall health.

Your physical therapist can create an exercise plan to strengthen muscles around your weak joints and teach you stretches to make your joints more flexible. Check with them to make sure you don’t overdo it. As you get used to your workout, you can pick up the pace or do it for longer.

Because osteoarthritis can make it hard for you to stay active, it’s easy to gain weight. Shedding even a few pounds can ease the strain on your joints.

If you need help to lose weight, talk to your doctor or nurse. They can suggest a diet plan and weight loss goal that’s right for you. They can also refer you to a dietitian or nutritionist to create an eating plan for you, or a weight loss doctor if you need one. It takes time, but don’t give up. Weight loss can do a lot to ease your OA symptoms.