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Are there alternative treatments for osteoarthritis?

Several non-drug treatments have been shown to help manage osteoarthritis. These include physical and occupational therapy, certain vitamins and supplements, heat and cold therapy, acupuncture, massage and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS).

Donna Hill Howes, RN
Family Practitioner

Besides taking drugs, there are things you can do to help your osteoarthritis. These include making lifestyle changes, such as eating a balanced diet and exercising to maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese can lead to osteoarthritis or make it worse. Simply losing as much as 11 pounds can decrease the risk of osteoarthritis and related pain. Smoking can aggravate osteoarthritis as well. Other good ways to manage  osteoarthritis beyond taking drugs include using knee braces, sleeves or orthotics; wearing proper shoes; and staying educated about your condition.

There are many alternative treatments for osteoarthritis that can help decrease pain and stiffness. These alternative therapies include acupuncture, massage, chiropractic manipulation, a soak in hot tub, and alternating hot and cold compresses on the joint. Nutritional supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin, and injections of visco-lubricants into the joints may help, but there is little scientific evidence backing their effectiveness.

Taking drugs is not the only thing you can do to decrease the pain and stiffness of osteoarthritis (OA). Being overweight or obese puts extra pressure on the knees and hips, and can worsen age-related wear on the joints of the knees and hips. Maintaining a healthy weight can slow the progression of osteoarthritis. Low-impact exercise, such as swimming, waking and cycling, not only helps you lose weight, it strengthens the muscles around the joints, which increases flexibility and takes some of the pressure off of them.

You may find wearing a knee brace, using an orthotic shoe insert or walking with a cane may also reduce pain.

Talk to a doctor before using any alternative treatment.

A common non-surgical treatment for shoulder osteoarthritis is injections. Most shoulder injections are given around but not in the shoulder joint, but when treating shoulder arthritis the injection should be given in the shoulder. This is done by a trained sports medicine or orthopedic specialist and often under ultrasound guidance to assure accuracy of injection location. Cortisone is the most common injection, but some patients get relief with lubricants (not readily covered by insurance) and even platelets (based on limited data from knee studies but very safe because they come from that patient's own blood stream). Most patients with cortisone injections get between 1-4 months of relief, and most doctors try to limit these injections to 3 per joint per year if possible.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

If you need medication to control the pain and other symptoms of osteoarthritis, your doctor will probably recommend that you try over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. However, you have probably read or heard about other therapies that are widely promoted for joint health. Some of these alternative medicines may be worth trying.

A few include capsaicin, devil's claw and supplements made from a combination of avocado and soybean extracts. Glucosamine and chondroitin are commonly used supplements for joint pain. Although not everyone seems to benefit from glucosamine, studies suggest that it may relieve osteoarthritis symptoms in some people. Don't expect pain to disappear overnight. It can take two months or more before you feel any benefit from glucosamine.

If you decide to try one of these products, tell your doctor first.

Pain relief doesn't have to come from a bottle. You may find reliable treatments for sore, stiff joints caused by osteoarthritis in your freezer or utility closet. Use ice packs to chill away pain several times a day. Meanwhile, a heating pad or hot water bottle can help ease pain and relax joints, which can diminish stiffness. Warm heat is always better than hot heat, which may burn skin.

Some people use other alternative therapies to treat their osteoarthritis. For example, in the past, few doctors would recommend acupuncture for osteoarthritis. Now, it's easier to find doctors who practice acupuncture and who treat patients with joint pain.

If you want to be more active, literally, in tackling osteoarthritis, disciplines such as yoga and tai chi may help ease symptoms. Always tell your doctor if you decide to go out and try these or other alternative treatments for osteoarthritis.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.