A stiff knee. A painful elbow. As we get older, these aches and pains become more frequent. It’s not just a sign of aging. These may be symptoms of arthritis, a general term used to describe inflammation and breakdown, or destruction of joints in the body.
Articular cartilage is the smooth, white tissue that covers the ends of bones where they come together to form joints. Arthritis is the destruction or loss of the articular cartilage, explains Dr. Mark Peterson, orthopedic surgeon with The Joint Center for Excellence at Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center.
Arthritis can be caused by factors such as infection, trauma or the body’s autoimmune responses. “The most common form is osteoarthritis which is caused by the natural wearing out of the articular cartilage lining our joints,” says Dr. Peterson.
Osteoarthritis is like the wear you see on a car tire, he explains. “As we age, there is natural wear or loss of cartilage. Genetics plays some role, though we have no marker to determine who will develop arthritis. Excess weight or overuse can lead to early development of osteoarthritis.”
In some cases, osteoarthritis starts earlier, like if there was trauma to an individual joint, he adds.
If you experience stiffness and pain, especially in the morning or after resting, you likely have osteoarthritis. You should see a doctor when pain occurs and limits your activity.
Many treatments are available that can lessen the symptoms associated with osteoarthritis. “But be careful because a lot of unproven treatments are advertised that have little to no scientific evidence that they are effective. Some physicians are charging very high prices for pseudoscience that does not work,” Dr. Peterson adds.
While surgery is an option, it’s only advised when you cannot live with your symptoms after trying other treatment methods, says Dr. Peterson.
Take Steps to Ease Osteoarthritis Pain
Several tried-and-true steps will help you relieve the pain. In fact, acting quickly will help you feel better about your ability to cope with osteoarthritis. A positive attitude also boosts your immune system, which improves your overall health.
Get your weight under control
If you’ve put on weight, it’s placing stress on your hips, knees, feet and back. Losing weight will reduce the pain and prevent more damage to joints. The simplest plan is to eat fewer calories and become more active.
You might not want to exercise when your joints hurt, but moving is an important part of treatment. Aerobic exercise improves stamina and energy levels. Walking around the neighborhood can help get weight under control. Biking is another low-impact activity that keeps you moving.
Building muscles around the joints will ease the burden on those joints — which reduces pain. Range-of-motion exercises help to improve joint flexibility and reduce stiffness.
Gently stretching your joints will improve flexibility, reduce stiffness, and ease the pain. Yoga and tai chi are also excellent for keeping muscles and joints limber.
Pain and anti-inflammatory medications
Analgesics and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) help to ease pain and inflammation. Corticosteroids are powerful anti-inflammatory medicines. Hyaluronic acid injections can help lubricate joints.
Learn ways to properly use your joints to minimize pain. Get advice on assistive devices that can help with function and mobility — scooters, canes, walkers, splints, shoe orthotics, and other helpful tools. Heat and cold therapies can be effective in easing pain.
Natural and alternative therapies
Nutritional supplements, acupuncture or acupressure, massage, relaxation techniques, hydrotherapy, and other therapies can help relieve pain and improve well-being.
Talk to your doctor or work with a physical therapist to learn the exact type of exercise or therapy you should do. As Dr. Peterson advises, some alternatives are not proven — so it’s important to discuss treatment options before trying them. You may need to see an orthopedist if your joint pain continues or impedes your usual activities. Shady Grove’s Joint Replacement Center of Excellence is here to help. Call 240-826-7591 to speak with a nurse educator about your condition.