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3 Ways to Treat Osteoarthritis

3 Ways to Treat Osteoarthritis

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

If osteoarthritis (OA) keeps you from living the life you want, you don't have to just grin and bear it. You may be able to reduce your pain and stiffness—as well as slow down your disease—by taking advantage of some of the latest advances in treatment.

There are three major medical treatment categories for OA—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 and/or minimize inflammation in affected joints. No drug is one-size-fits-all, though. To adequately manage your symptoms, your healthcare provider may recommend one medication or a combination, and they may be over-the-counter or prescription drugs. Here are the popular categories for arthritis:

  • Acetaminophen: Healthcare providers often choose acetaminophen as the first line of defense when it comes to relieving OA pain. The drug has fewer potential side effects than what is commonly seen with long-term use of aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Keep in mind: It's not an effective treatment for inflammation. 
     
  • 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. They’re 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 side effect risk, especially if you also have been diagnosed with other medication conditions.

2. Viscosupplements (hyaluronic acid injections)
Synovial fluid is the thick substance that lubricates freely moveable joints like your hip, knee, elbow and wrist. It tends to thin out and become watered down with age and in people with OA. 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. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has 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
An operation is a last resort for many people, but sometimes OA progresses to the point where the pain can no longer be relieved by any other method. Fortunately, there is a wide variety of surgical techniques available—with varying recovery times—that can effectively relieve joint pain and restore function.

  • 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 healthcare provider or orthopedic specialist about your options so that he or she can tailor a multifaceted treatment plan that will work for you.

Medically reviewed in December 2019.

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