You can relieve your arthritis pain and restore joint function with exercise, over-the-counter medication, surgery, and a variety of natural remedies.
When you have osteoarthritis, the cartilage that cushions your joints wears away, resulting in pain, stiffness, and a lack of mobility. Though there is no cure, there are osteoarthritis treatments available to help you manage the pain and continue living a normal, productive life.
How to relieve arthritis pain
Exercise and physical therapy help manage arthritis pain, strengthening the muscles around your affected joints. These muscles serve as shock absorbers, cushioning joints and reducing strain as your osteoarthritis progresses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends exercise as a way to manage the pain of arthritis and avoid becoming disabled as your condition worsens.
The amount and type of exercise you should do will depend on how far your osteoarthritis has progressed, how stable your joints are, and your overall physical health. Low-impact exercises, such as walking, swimming, and water aerobics, are often beneficial for those suffering from osteoarthritis because they exercise joints without adding further strain. Physical therapy can also help target the muscles around specific bones.
Many doctors also focus on weight control as a key part of pain management. Maintaining a healthy weight reduces strain on your joints, lowers inflammation in your body, and allows you to be more physically active.
Medication, including both over-the-counter painkillers and prescription drugs, can also relieve arthritis pain.
Over-the-counter arthritis medication
Over-the-counter medication can help manage everyday arthritis pain.
Acetaminophen, found in Tylenol, can treat mild arthritis pain, though it is often not strong enough for more advanced forms of osteoarthritis. Non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, can help reduce swelling, inflammation, and pain. These include ibuprofen and naproxen.
Before using over-the-counter arthritis medication, consult your doctor about how much to take. Many over-the-counter painkillers can cause symptoms like nausea or ulcers if you take them too frequently. If a safe dosage of over-the-counter medication is not sufficient for your arthritis pain, talk to your doctor about prescription-strength painkillers.
Prescription medication for arthritis pain
Your doctor may start treating your pain with prescription NSAIDs, which are stronger than over-the-counter versions. Examples include celecoxib, piroxicam, and indomethacin, among many others. You can also use topical medications, such as menthol- or capsaicin-based balms.
For temporary relief of severe pain, doctors may prescribe opioid painkillers like oxycodone and percocet. These types of painkillers are tightly controlled and can become addictive if they are misused or taken over long periods of time. Doctors are beginning to prescribe them less often because they are generally not effective for long-term use. If your doctor has you take painkillers, be sure to follow the dosage instructions to avoid dangerous side effects.
Corticosteroid injections can also be used to reduce inflammation and swelling in joints for short periods of time. Multiple trials have shown that these injections are effective at managing osteoarthritis pain in hips and knees. However, there are fewer conclusive results for using corticosteroids to treat joint pain in the hands.
Surgical treatments for osteoarthritis
If joint pain becomes unmanageable with medication and movement therapy, surgery may be an option.
Surgery to treat osteoarthritis often involves joint replacement or fusing bones together so they no longer rub painfully against each other. However, some doctors are beginning to experiment with inserting synthetic cartilage into joints.
Other experimental treatments for osteoarthritis include implanting stem cells, taken from your own body, into inflamed joints where they can form new cartilage. Regulations for stem cell treatments vary from country to country, however, and locations where they can be performed are limited.
Treatment for arthritis in knees
Osteoarthritis in weight-bearing joints, including knees, can sometimes require specialized treatment.
Balneotherapy, a treatment that involves soaking in a mineral bath, has been found to reduce knee pain in the short term. Lubrication and mobility in knee joints can also be improved with injections of hyaluronic acid, which relieve pain and stiffness for eight to 24 weeks.
There are several surgical treatments for osteoarthritis in the knees. Osteotomy, a procedure that improves alignment by cutting the bones in the knee joint, is often used to treat osteoarthritis in young, active people. However, studies have shown that depending on how the bones realign, the benefits of this surgery can fade after five to seven years, after which pain and stiffness return.
Many people with osteoarthritis in their knees also use canes, crutches, and braces to reduce pressure on their joints and manage pain and stiffness.
Natural remedies for arthritis
If you prefer to avoid medication, some natural remedies may be helpful for treating arthritis.
Multiple studies have found that massage therapy can help treat osteoarthritis. One trial found that pressure massage could increase range of motion in the knees, along with reducing pain and sleep disturbances. Other research has shown that proper self-massage is a convenient and cost-effective way to reduce stiffness and improve general function.
Acupuncture is an effective natural remedy for arthritis, improving pain and increasing everyday function. However, most studies on acupuncture have focused on osteoarthritis in the knee; research into acupuncture for other joints is ongoing.
Some supplements may show promise as osteoarthritis treatments. Animal trials found that the omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil can help lubricate joints and moderate inflammation. Results from human trials, however, have been less conclusive. A review of literature on fish oil and osteoarthritis concluded that more research needs to be done, and the supplement industry needs to be more standardized, before fish oil can be considered a reliable natural treatment for osteoarthritis.
Other research has examined glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate as natural treatments for osteoarthritis. There is some indication that these supplements can help treat arthritis pain, especially in knee joints. However, more studies are needed to determine whether these results are clinically significant or due to the placebo effect.
August 30, 2017
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA