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3 Ways to Treat Osteoarthritis

Medications? Injections? Surgery? Get the real deal on all of your options.

If joint troubles have kept you from living the life you desire, maybe it's time to see what medical science has to offer, because you don't have to just grin and bear it. You may be able to not only reduce your pain and stiffness but also possibly slow down the disease as well -- just by taking advantage of some of the latest advances in osteoarthritis treatment.

There are three major medical treatment categories for osteoarthritis -- and one or more of them may be right for you.

1. Medication

Medications can help on several fronts: They can help reduce pain, control swelling, or minimize inflammation -- or all three -- in affected joints. No medication is one-size-fits-all, though. Your doctor may recommend one medication or a combination, from over-the-counter to prescription, to adequately manage your symptoms. Here are the popular categories for arthritis:

  • Acetaminophen: Healthcare providers often choose acetaminophen as the first line of defense when it comes to relieving osteoarthritis pain. But keep in mind it's not an effective treatment for inflammation. Still, acetaminophen has fewer potential side effects than what is commonly seen with long-term use of aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Learn more about acetaminophen, including brand names and potential side effects.

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): Aspirin and other NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, are commonly used for treating arthritis. Research suggests they may be helpful in relieving OA pain as well as inflammation, and NSAIDs are available in both over-the-counter and prescription strengths. However, NSAIDs can have side effects, some of which could be quite serious, such as ulcers and bleeding, salt and water retention, impaired kidney function, problems with blood clotting, and increases in blood pressure. Short-term use of NSAIDs -- for about a week or two -- makes these side effects much less likely. But long-term use of high-dose NSAIDs increases the risk -- as will certain medical conditions. Find out who's at highest risk for NSAID complications.

Discover strategies for reducing the risk of side effects when taking over-the-counter medications.

2. Viscosupplements (hyaluronic acid injections)

Synovial fluid tends to thin out and become watered down with age -- and in people with osteoarthritis. And when it's thin and watery, synovial fluid loses much of its lubricating ability. But there is a compound that occurs naturally in synovial fluid -- hyaluronic acid -- that makes the fluid thicker and more protective. And recently the Food and Drug Administration approved a form of hyaluron that can be injected into the knees of people with OA to help thicken the knee's synovial fluid, decrease pain, and improve mobility (it's not yet approved for injection into other joints).

3. Surgery

Surgery is a last resort for many people, but sometimes osteoarthritis progresses to the point where the pain can no longer be relieved by any other method. But, fortunately, you have a wide variety of surgical techniques available -- with varying recovery times -- that can effectively relieve joint pain and restore function.

  • Arthroscopy is a minimally invasive surgical procedure in which a thin, lighted scope is inserted into a small incision in the knee. The scope allows the surgeon to examine the inside of the joint for damage. Two other incisions are made -- one to suffuse the joint with fluid and another to repair torn tissue or remove damaged pieces of cartilage or bone that may be causing pain and inflammation inside the joint. Tidal lavage is another arthroscopic procedure in which a sterile salt solution is repeatedly injected into and removed from the joint to flush out debris and inflammation-inducing substances.

  • Osteotomy is a surgical technique that reshapes and realigns the bones of arthritic joints so that they move against one another with less pressure and friction. The result: Joints are protected from further cartilage damage, inflammation, and pain. If coupled with intense postsurgical rehabilitation, osteotomy can successfully stymie the progression of OA and bring significant pain relief as well.

  • Joint replacement is often reserved for advanced cases of knee and hip osteoarthritis. Diseased or injured parts of the joint are surgically removed and replaced with artificial pieces. The new joint can last for 15 to 20 years.

  • Arthrodesis is an option when joint replacement fails or isn't possible, and the condition of the joint is severely debilitating. In this procedure, impaired joints are encouraged to grow together and fuse, which severely limits movement.

Explore Your Options
In addition to medical treatments, you also have a sizeable number of self-care options for relieving pain and improving your range of motion. Ask your doctor or orthopedic specialist about your options so that he or she can tailor a multifaceted treatment plan that will work for you.

Learn how to maintain your active lifestyle and prevent arthritis pain. Take the assessment.