Osteoarthritis (OA) is a type of arthritis where the cartilage at the end of bones degenerates. Cartilage is a flexible tissue that cushions the bones and allows joints to move smoothly. When this tissue wears down, there is friction between your joints, causing pain and discomfort.
Most often, OA impacts the hands, knees, and hips, with as many as 500 million people¹ being affected by the condition worldwide. OA is the most common type of arthritis diagnosed in the United States. According to recent research², more than 32.5 million US adults are affected by osteoarthritis.
There are many ways to reduce pain and discomfort and increase mobility, making osteoarthritis easier to manage in day-to-day life. The condition and the most severe symptoms can also be prevented to some degree, so find out what health professionals recommend.
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If you have OA symptoms or you have recently received a diagnosis, you might be feeling frustrated and confused. It’s understandable if you’re hoping there is a cure for the condition, but unfortunately, there isn’t.
While there is no cure for osteoarthritis, you should stay positive. There is a range of different treatment options that can help reduce your pain and make daily life easier. Your doctor will work with you to find the best treatment plan for your condition and symptoms, and enhance your quality of life.
There are several OA treatment options that you and your doctor can choose from, including:
NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs): ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), indomethacin, diclofenac, etoricoxib, and aspirin (Bayer, Excedrin)
Topical NSAIDs — including diclofenac sodium gel and liquid options, and diclofenac epolamine patches
Analgesics — acetaminophen (Tylenol), duloxetine (Cymbalta), and opioids (including hydrocodone and oxycodone)
Injections — intraarticular (IA) corticosteroid injections (also known as cortisone injections)
NSAIDs are often the most effective treatment for osteoarthritis. You can pick up these medications over the counter (OTC) at your nearest drug store, but if these dosages don’t reduce your pain, your doctor might prescribe you a higher dose.
Although you can access NSAIDs without a doctor, you shouldn’t take them without medical guidance. Taking NSAIDs for pain over more than ten days without medical supervision can be dangerous for your health because it increases the chance of developing side effects³ such as:
Stomach ulcers (internal bleeding which can be fatal)
The most common NSAIDs for OA pain relief are ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve). Both options can help to reduce chronic pain. They work similarly, but ibuprofen offers fast-acting pain relief, while naproxen offers pain relief that lasts longer.
If you can’t take oral NSAIDs or simply don't want to, there are topical options as well. These are ideal for those who only have minor OA symptoms or those who cannot take oral NSAIDs in the long term (i.e., people with heart problems or people who are over 65).
Not everyone finds NSAIDs effective. Discuss your treatment options with your physician to help create a suitable treatment plan.
No matter what your osteoarthritis medication plan is, supportive treatments⁴ can give it the best chance of success and help to enhance your quality of life. These include:
Research⁵ links osteoarthritis with obesity and high BMI. If you’re overweight, your joints are under more strain and your cartilage is more likely to wear down. Maintaining a healthy weight by eating a balanced, nutritious diet and keeping active can help to ease your symptoms if you have been diagnosed with OA.
Manual therapy and light exercise
According to a 2009 study⁶, exercise can effectively manage osteoarthritis symptoms. Researchers concluded that people with OA should exercise cautiously, avoiding any type of movement that places excess pressure on the affected joint.
Some people with OA avoid exercise as it causes them pain and discomfort. However, doing light exercise regularly or having manual therapy can help to reduce your pain and make keeping active much easier. These methods can strengthen the muscles around your joints and increase your flexibility.
Some light exercises that can reduce OA symptoms include:
Going for a walk
Swimming or swimming aerobics
Think carefully about how you exercise. Low-impact activities like those listed above are smart choices. When doing high-impact activities like running and playing ball games, avoid hard surfaces and don’t do the same activity every day as this may lead to joint injury.
Applying a hot or cold pack to your painful joints can ease your OA symptoms. Research⁷ has found that the heat from hot packs can help your muscles relax. Cold packs can effectively help to reduce swelling and pain — for best results, apply a cold pack for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. Try alternating between hot and cold packs for better pain relief.
Surgery — your last resort treatment option
If every other type of treatment — including medication, exercise, physical therapy, and lifestyle changes — doesn’t ease your symptoms, your doctor might recommend surgery.
Although surgery is considered a last resort by medical experts, it can greatly improve your quality of life by reducing pain and improving mobility. Common surgeries for osteoarthritis include:
Osteotomy (the process of removing or adding bone around your joint)
While patients can experience many benefits from surgery, it does not consistently achieve positive results. Surgery is not a guarantee⁴ that your symptoms will disappear altogether, and you may still experience pain and stiffness.
Some measures can lessen your risk of developing osteoarthritis by reducing the pressure on your joints. However, prevention is not guaranteed.
The University of Rochester's Medical Center⁸ suggests you do the following to reduce your chances of developing osteoarthritis:
Maintain a healthy weight through diet and exercise
Maintaining or reaching a healthy weight may reduce the stress placed on your joints throughout your life and reduce your risk of developing osteoarthritis.
A study⁹ of 796 women found that those who lost 11.24 pounds (5.1 kg) of body weight over ten years had less risk of developing knee osteoarthritis compared to those who did not lose weight. This suggests that maintaining a healthy weight may reduce your risk of having OA.
You can maintain a healthy weight by eating a healthy, nutritious, and balanced diet, and keeping active. Keeping active is an important tool for maintaining a healthy weight and keeping your joints in good condition. It is recommended that you do 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, but you can spread this out over several days.
If you think you are overweight, speak to your doctor — they will be able to give you advice or refer you to specialists who can help you lose weight.
Avoiding joint injuries
Sports injuries can play a significant role in the development of osteoarthritis. Although you may not experience OA symptoms for months or even years following a sports-related injury, it’s common to receive an OA diagnosis around ten years after.
According to Ortho Health¹⁰, 40% of severe injuries lead to osteoarthritis, and there's no guaranteed way to prevent it. A 2017 study¹¹ reported that participating in activities like soccer, long-distance running, wrestling, and weight lifting increases your risk of developing OA in the knee.
If you play sports or take part in activities that may cause joint injury, you can take steps to reduce the risk. Remember to warm up before the activity by spending five to ten minutes stretching and moving gently. Change up your exercise routine so you’re not putting pressure on the same joints every day. If you’re using equipment at home, at work, or even in the gym, remember to follow safety instructions carefully to avoid injury.
Monitor your pain and talk to your doctor
You should monitor how your body responds to your exercise routines and make adjustments when necessary.
If your joints feel very sore after exercise, this is a sign that you are exercising too vigorously and you should lighten your workouts to avoid joint injury.
If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with osteoarthritis, there are a number of treatment options to consider. These include medications like NSAIDs or analgesics, injections such as intraarticular (IA) corticosteroid injections, and topical solutions.
Of all the available treatment options, experts have found NSAIDs to be the most effective form of treatment for OA patients. The best results are achieved when you also make changes to your lifestyle by eating a healthy diet, trying to keep active, and reducing your body weight. You can also incorporate manual therapy to help with movement and flexibility, and thermotherapy to reduce pain and inflammation, into your regular routine.
In severe OA cases, you may benefit from surgery. However, your doctor will only recommend this as a last resort when other treatments have not worked.
While there is no certain way to prevent OA, by maintaining a healthy weight and taking steps to avoid joint injuries, you may lessen your risk.
OA Prevalence and burden | Osteoarthritis Action Alliance
Treatment and support | NHS
Exercise and osteoarthritis (2009)
How to help prevent osteoarthritis | University of Rochester Medical Center
Can sports injuries cause arthritis? | Orthopaedic and Spine Center of the Rockies