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Osteoarthritis treatments: Know your options

How is osteoarthritis treated?

Osteoarthritis is the most common condition in the UK affecting the joints.

Osteoarthritis is a 'wear-and-tear' form of arthritis and cannot be cured, but steps can be taken to help relieve symptoms and reduce further damage to the joints.

Treatment approaches will depend on the severity of symptoms, and may include medication, physiotherapy or lifestyle changes, such as weight loss and exercise.

Osteoarthritis treatments

Aside from weight reduction and avoiding activities that exert excessive stress on the joint cartilage, there is no scientifically proven or licensed treatment to halt cartilage degeneration or to repair damaged cartilage in osteoarthritis. The goal of treatment in osteoarthritis is to reduce joint pain and inflammation while improving and maintaining joint function.

Some patients with osteoarthritis have minimal or no pain, and may not need treatment. Others may benefit from conservative measures such as rest, exercise, weight reduction, physiotherapy, occupational therapy and support devices. These measures are particularly important when large, weight-bearing joints are involved such as the hips or knees. In fact even modest weight reduction can help to decrease symptoms of osteoarthritis of these large joints. Medicines are used to complement the physical measures described above. Medication may be used topically, taken orally or injected into the joints to decrease joint inflammation and pain. When conservative measures fail to control pain and improve joint function, surgery can be considered.

Rest

Resting sore joints decreases stress on the joints, and relieves pain and swelling. Patients are asked to simply decrease the intensity and/or frequency of the activities that consistently cause joint pain.

Exercise

Exercise usually does not aggravate osteoarthritis when performed at levels that do not cause joint pain. Exercise is helpful in osteoarthritis in several ways. First it strengthens the muscular support around the joints. It also prevents the joints from "freezing up" and improves and maintains joint mobility. Finally it helps with weight reduction and promotes endurance. Applying local heat before and cold packs after exercise can help relieve pain and inflammation. Swimming is particularly suitable for patients with osteoarthritis because it allows patients to exercise with minimal impact stress to the joints. Other popular exercises include walking, stationary cycling and light weight training.

Physiotherapists can provide support devices such as splints, walking sticks, walking frames and braces. These devices can be helpful in reducing stress on the joints. Occupational therapists can assess daily activities and determine additional devices that may help patients at work or home, for example, tap turners or jar openers. Appropriate footwear and if necessary special insoles (orthotics) may help with lower limb osteoarthritis. Finger splints can support individual joints of the fingers. Paraffin wax dips or warm water soaks may help ease hand symptoms. Spine symptoms can improve with a neck collar or lumbar corset. The charity Arthritis Care says sleeping on a good mattress may help to ease joint pain.

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