Osteoarthritis can make movement painful, but there are ways to reduce its impact on your day-to-day. Here’s what you need to know.
Sometimes called degenerative joint disease, osteoarthritis is the most common joint problem in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It affects about 32 million people, especially older adults. And it occurs most frequently in the hands, hips, and knees.
Osteoarthritis develops when the cartilage inside a joint begins to break down, reducing the amount of cushioning. This can lead to swelling, stiffness, reduced function, and pain. Although osteoarthritis might be prompted by an injury, it’s most often a “wear and tear” condition that happens slowly over time.
There’s no cure for osteoarthritis. But there are ways to reduce or even eliminate symptoms. Here’s what you need to know about identifying and treating this condition.
Get and stay fit with SilverSneakers! Choose from dozens of different Community classes, visit a participating fitness location, or view the current schedule of SilverSneakers LIVE online classes. Check your eligibility here.
What are the symptoms of osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis symptoms tend to come on slowly and worsen over time, according to Mayo Clinic. What was just a dull ache last year might be sharp pain these days.
Keep an eye out for these signs:
Pain. Affected joints might hurt during or after movement.
Stiffness. This happens most when you’ve been sedentary for a while, such as when you first get up in the morning.
Loss of flexibility. You may notice you can’t move a joint through its full range of motion. Or your joint may feel like it has a “sticky point” that’s tough to get past.
Tenderness. Light pressure could cause pain, especially if there’s swelling.
Popping or cracking. Air often builds up in joints and causes harmless pops and cracks during movement. But feeling a grating sensation could be a sign of osteoarthritis.
Bone spurs. These feel like hard lumps in and around the affected joint. These are tiny bumps that form along bone edges. And they are strongly associated with osteoarthritis.
Most bone spurs aren’t the source of pain on their own, but their presence can change how you move, which may be painful. For instance, bone spurs on your vertebrae can narrow the space in your spinal cord, causing pinching on the nerve roots.
What are the risk factors of osteoarthritis?
Age is a major factor when it comes to developing osteoarthritis, but it’s not the only one. That doesn’t mean osteoarthritis is an inevitable part of aging. And it’s not something that only affects older people.
These other factors tend to play a role in its development:
- Excess weight, especially obesity, since this can create more stress on your joints.
- Previous joint injuries, which can weaken tendons inside a joint and create the conditions for osteoarthritis.
- Being female, since women have higher rates of osteoarthritis than men, in large part because of hormone changes during menopause.
- Low bone density, which can weaken the bones within a joint or lead to mobility issues that put more stress on joints.
- Joint laxity, which means tendons supporting the joint are looser and more flexible. This is often hereditary and is a lifelong condition.
- Muscle weakness, resulting in reduced range of motion in the joints and more stiffness.
- Repetitive stress, which happens when a joint is overused, particularly over a long period of time.
- Family history, since genetics may be involved. People who have family members with osteoarthritis are more likely to develop the condition.
Some of these risk factors can be reduced — such as weight, bone density, and muscle weakness — through regular exercise and lifestyle changes (more on this later).
How is osteoarthritis diagnosed?
If you have symptoms, especially joint pain, it’s a good idea to visit your doctor. The earlier you address osteoarthritis, the more you can slow its progression.
Your doctor will examine you to look for signs like swelling. They might also do an X-ray to see the structure of your joints. An X-ray will also be able to show loss of joint cartilage, possible bone spurs, and the amount of space you have between your bones.
You may also need an MRI. This scan can provide detailed images of soft tissue and bone. This type of image isn’t typically part of diagnosis but may be suggested in more complex cases, according to Mayo Clinic.
Lab tests can also be part of your diagnosis. Blood tests can rule out other potential causes like rheumatoid arthritis (this is when your immune system attacks the joints).
Joint fluid tests can show inflammation and possible infection.
In some cases, you may be referred to a rheumatologist, who specializes in arthritis and related conditions.
What medical treatments are used to address osteoarthritis-related joint pain?
Treatment is often a multi-pronged approach that may include medications, physical therapy, and lifestyle changes, according to Mayo Clinic.
Unless you have considerable damage, pain, and disability, it’s likely your doctor will try conservative approaches first. This includes use of over-the-counter pain medication like ibuprofen and acetaminophen.
If your pain is more severe, your doctor may suggest duloxetine (Cymbalta). This medicine is normally used as an antidepressant. But it is also approved to treat chronic pain.
If these treatments don’t help, you may be a candidate for other procedures. These can include:
- Cortisone injections directly into the joint to reduce inflammation. These are limited to three or four per year, as more frequent use can worsen joint damage.
- Hyaluronic acid injections to lubricate your joint.
- Osteotomy, a surgical procedure involving cutting away part of a bone and sometimes adding bone tissue to reshape or realign your joint. This can be performed on most joints, including hips, knees, shoulders, spine, and even your jaw.
- Joint replacement, which is usually suggested when other options haven’t worked. In this procedure, your damaged joint if removed and replaced with plastic and metal parts. If your doctor thinks you’re a good candidate for joint replacement, ask them to help you carefully weigh the risks and benefits. For more, read: Considering Joint Replacement? Why Older Adults Should Think Twice.
What role can exercise play with osteoarthritis and joint pain?
You might think that taking it easy and limiting your exercise is the best strategy to ease joint pain. But the opposite is typically true, according to the Arthritis Foundation. The organization notes that exercise is the most effective, non-drug treatment for reducing pain and improving movement in people with osteoarthritis.
Walking and aquatic exercises — for example, SilverSneakers LIVE Walk Strong (Express) and SilverSneakers Splash — are particularly low-impact. But there are many others recommended by the Arthritis Foundation, including:
Range of motion exercises that help your joints move fully. This can be gentle stretching, yoga, or tai chi. Three SilverSneakers clases to try: SilverSneakers Yoga and SilverSneakers EnerChi — both are offered in-person at participating fitness locations (check with the gym for current schedules) and online with SilverSneakers LIVE — and SilverSneakers LIVE Gentle Stretch (Express).
Low-impact aerobic and endurance exercises, which don’t affect your joints directly but instead strengthen the heart and lungs and reduce fatigue. These can build stamina, while also helping manage weight. Examples include walking, bicycling, swimming, and SilverSneakers cardio classes, such as SilverSneakers Classic or Zumba Gold. (Both are offered in-person and online with SilverSneakers LIVE.)
Strength training. Building up the muscles that surround the joints is important for creating more support. This reduces the amount of pressure on your joints when you move. Two to try: SilverSneakers Classic or SilverSneakers LIVE Cardio & Strength (Express).
Recommended workout: Low-Impact HIIT Workout That’s Good for Achy Joints. It’s a 6-exercise circuit that you can do with or without weights.
Even everyday activities like taking the stairs more often, doing moderate-intensity housework like cleaning, or gardening can all count toward staying active.
What home remedies exist for joint pain?
In addition to medical treatments and regular exercise, there are home remedies and non-prescription treatments that can help alleviate joint pain. These include over-the-counter topical remedies like gels and creams.
Applying topical menthol cream, for example, can cool down inflamed joints and muscles. On the other hand, capsaicin — a compound found in hot chili peppers — is used for warming and relaxing muscles.
According to Mayo Clinic, other remedies that may help include:
- Alternating between heat and cold, which can reduce swelling and pain. Inflammation puts painful pressure on joints.
- Using braces or shoe inserts that can support your leg if you’re dealing with osteoarthritis in your ankle, knee, or hip.
- Acupuncture, which has been shown to ease pain and improve function in people with knee osteoarthritis.
- Taking glucosamine and chondroitin, nutritional supplements that may lower inflammation and pain.
- Trying avocado-soybean supplements, which have been found to help slow or even prevent joint damage.
- Loading up on omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish oil supplements as well as salmon, sardines, and other fatty fish. These can help relieve pain and improve joint function.
It’s a good idea to talk with your doctor before starting any supplement. This is especially true if you’re on other medication. Your doctor can help you avoid any potential interactions. For example, glucosamine can negatively interact with blood thinners like warfarin.
Can you prevent osteoarthritis?
Because there are some factors that aren’t within your control — such as family history and age — the condition can’t always be prevented. That said, there are ways you can lower your risk.
The same lifestyle habits that help reduce symptoms can also help prevent this condition from developing.
- Getting regular exercise
- Eating healthy foods with a focus on lowering inflammation
- Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule
- Lowering stress levels
- Gentle stretching a few times a day to prevent and ease stiffness
If you don’t have osteoarthritis but are concerned about developing it, talk with your doctor about prevention strategies. And stay active, as exercise can improve joint health, as well as help you maintain a healthy weight, gain muscle mass, and increase bone density.
Osteoarthritis/general: Centers for Disease Control. (2020) Osteoarthritis
Prevalence/risk factors: Clinics in Geriatric Medicine. (2011) Epidemiology of Osteoarthritis
Bone spurs: Mayo Clinic. (2021) Bone spurs
Diagnosis/treatment/lifestyle changes: Mayo Clinic. (2021) Osteoarthritis and Symptoms and Causes
Role of exercise: Arthritis Foundation. (2022) Benefits of Exercise for Osteoarthritis
Take Your Favorite SilverSneakers Classes Online!
SilverSneakers members can access live fitness classes and wellness workshops through SilverSneakers LIVE. See the latest schedule and RSVP for classes here.
Not a member? If you have a Medicare Plan, it may include SilverSneakers—at no additional cost. Check your eligibility instantly here.
Not eligible for SilverSneakers? You can still get 200+ free SilverSneakers On-Demand videos and stay in touch with us by creating your online account.