C. Kay Rowley, Contributing writer
Creak, crunch and groan ... those are the sounds of osteoarthritis.
If you're 45 years or older, you may have noticed those sounds when you are going up or down stairs or when you first wake up in the morning. If so, you are one of the 27 million Americans who suffer from a disease of the joints called osteoarthritis.
Osteoarthritis is a disease of wear and tear in which the cartilage (the shock-absorbing tissue that covers the ends of the bones) breaks down over time, leading to fragile collagen.
There are a variety of factors that can cause this condition, such as a ligament tear or sprain, bone fractures, tissue injuries, obesity, and weakness in the muscles that support joints can also contribute or increase your risk by placing stress on joint cartilage. The most common areas that are affected by osteoarthritis are the knees, hips, fingers, neck and lower back.
Strategies To Help Cope With Osteoarthritis
The pain and stiffness that you experience can interfere with your ability to do the things you love, like working in your garden, or keeping up the pace of your normal activities, such as shopping, business travel or even enjoying your favorite sport. If you take care of your joints, they will take care of you. Here are some ways to start "living" with osteoarthritis:
The health of your joints depends on movement to keep the tissues flexible, lubricated and replenished with nutrients. Some of the best activities include walking, low-impact aerobics, swimming, cycling, aqua aerobics and yoga. Weight training with free weights or with weight machines also helps the affected joints.
Lose The Extra Pounds
We all could stand to lose a few extra pounds, but being overweight or obese actually increases your risk of developing osteoarthritis. It can also make your existing osteoarthritis worse. A moderate weight loss of 10-15 pounds over a four-month period can reduce your pain significantly and also improve your quality of life.
Apply Cold Or Heat
Many people who suffer from osteoarthritis find that alternating between cold and heat significantly reduces their pain and stiffness. An ice pack (or bag of frozen peas) can numb the pain and decrease swelling. A heating pad and warm shower can also improve circulation around the joint and relax tense muscles.
Medication And Topical Analgesics
There is no medication that can stop or reverse osteoarthritis, but there are many medications that can alleviate the pain and inflammation so you can remain active, such as: non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) like ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn), aspirin (Bayer, Excedrin), and acetaminophen (Tylenol).
If pain becomes severe, consult your physician for prescription strength pain relievers. Many people find relief from analgesic creams or salves applied directly to the skin. Capsaicin, an active ingredient in many of these creams, depletes a neurotransmitter that sends pain signals and others deliver an anti-inflammatory through the skin. Be sure to follow the directions carefully.
Oftentimes having a cortisone injection can reduce swelling and relieve pain quickly. A new type of injection called hyaluronic acid (viscosupplementation) injected into the joint can temporarily replace the cushioning substance in joint fluid that is depleted in people with osteoarthritis.
Embracing The Use Of Braces
It may not sound attractive, but taping or using neoprene sleeves can alleviate pain in the upper and lower body joints by holding them in better alignment and by supporting weak muscles. You can buy these over the counter in most drug stores or they can be custom fitted. Taping should only be done by a trained physical therapist.
Many sufferers of osteoarthritis are receiving considerable relief through the ancient practice of acupuncture (thin needles placed in specific points of the body). Others are helped by green tea (a staple of the Eastern diet), and the ancient Chinese martial arts of tai chi helps not only pain, but physical function.
For over a decade, the use of glucosamine and chondroitin has received popular attention. These over-the-counter nutritional supplements have helped many people although there is no clinical evidence to support its use. However, one study did find that the combination of the two supplements significantly improved pain relief in those with moderate to severe knee osteoarthritis.