How to Ease Osteoarthritis Symptoms

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It may start with joint pain and stiffness, eventually resulting in a limited range of motion. Sometimes patients complain of muscle weakness, grating, and popping in the joint. Regardless of how your symptoms develop, osteoarthritis (OA) can be debilitating.

More than 30 million Americans suffer from this painful joint disease, most common in hands, hips, knees, and spine — and that number is growing. A new analysis based on the Global Burden of Disease 2019 report says that the global prevalence of OA jumped 113% between 1990 and 2019, a worrying increase because there is no cure.

The increase doesn't surprise Elana Oberstein, M.D., a rheumatologist with the University of Miami Health System. "It's the most common form of arthritis in Americans, more common than rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis," she says. "And as the population ages, we can expect cases to go up."

The analysis, published in Arthritis & Rheumatology, notes that an aging population might be the main reason for the rise in numbers.

Osteoarthritis is often referred to as the wear-and-tear disease.

It develops when the cartilage between the bones of a joint begins to wear down, which happens over time. When this occurs, bone rubs against bone, which leads to pain and swelling due to joint damage. However, OA affects more than the bone.

"It can cause changes to the connective tissues, the tendons, muscles, and ligaments that hold the joint together," Dr. Oberstein adds.

Aside from age, other risk factors include obesity, joint injuries (from sports or an accident), repeated stress (especially for certain occupations), genetics, and certain metabolic diseases such as diabetes. Of all these factors, obesity may be the most significant.

As Dr. Oberstein succinctly explains, "Carrying extra weight means you're putting more stress on your joints."

Fat tissue also causes inflammation which affects joints.

In the data published in Arthritis & Rheumatology, three countries had the most cases: China with 132.81 million; India with 62.36 million; and the United States with 51.87 million. But the increase in prevalence wasn't limited to these highly populated nations. Cases increased across all socio-demographic populations and geographic regions.

Research also found that OA cases rose in all four body sites studied. The highest jump in prevalence was in hip OA, which rose almost 128%. The lowest increase was osteoarthritis in the hand and wrist, with a jump of nearly 92%.

Researchers concluded that these trends would likely continue due to population aging and obesity.

However, "it's not all doom and gloom," Dr. Oberstein says.

"Yes, we're all getting older, but with a more conscientious lifestyle, you can prolong the health of your joints."

While osteoarthritis can't be reversed, there are treatments to alleviate symptoms.

Medications, including injections to the joint and physical therapy, can help. For more severe cases, surgery may be recommended. In addition, during flare-ups, hot and cold compresses to the joint are recommended.

Dr. Oberstein also suggests:

Visit a physician when you begin to develop joint pain discomfort.

"It's important to have a full workup done to determine the cause. Establishing a diagnosis can be easily determined and result in the proper treatment to ease osteoarthritis. Keep in mind that OA is just one potential cause" for joint problems.

Lose weight if you're too heavy.

"Keep an eye on your BMI," she says. Body-mass index is a formula that uses a person's height and weight to screen for weight issues that can lead to health problem. A BMI of 25.0 or more is overweight.

Limit red meat intake.

Eat an anti-inflammatory diet consisting of brightly colored fruits and vegetables, leafy greens, nuts, and fatty fish, such as salmon and sardines. Dr. Oberstein also nixes processed foods.

Exercise in moderation.

Walking and water activities are best. Avoid high impact activities (running, jumping, stair climbing) that can worsen symptoms of osteoarthritis in your lower extremities) and repetitive motions (pushups, overhead weightlifting, tennis) that can affect your shoulders.

Prep before exercise. Stretch.

"Make sure to warm up and cool down to avoid injuries," she says.

Avoid sitting for long periods.

Invest in a stand-up or treadmill desk. Inactivity atrophies the ligaments, tendons, and muscles important to joint health.

"If you're sitting 23 hours a day, you're negating the benefits of exercise. You need to move every hour," Dr. Oberstein says. Use a timer to remind yourself to move every 50 minutes or so.

Don't count on supplements to ease osteoarthritis.

"There isn't any proof that they work to halt progress" of the disease.


Ana Veciana-Suarez, Guest Columnist

Ana Veciana Suarez

Ana is a regular contributor to the University of Miami Health System. She is a renowned journalist and author who has worked at The Miami Herald, The Miami News, and The Palm Beach Post. Visit her website at anavecianasuarez.com or follow @AnaVeciana on Twitter.


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