Staying One Step Ahead of OAby Tracy Davenport, Ph.D. Health Writer
To have osteoarthritis (OA) is to know pain: This most-common form of the inflammatory disease induces stiffness and swelling in your joints that can make life difficult to navigate. Looking for advice on how to keep moving forward? We asked two very active people living with OA for tips and tricks up their sleeves when it comes to finding the best treatment, dealing with setbacks, and finding their new normal.
Slowing Down Is Not an Option
After 30 years as a high school guidance counselor, Nancy Moore’s idea of retirement isn’t sitting in a rocking chair. Even though she lives with OA in her hands, shoulders, and knees, Moore’s weekly schedule resembles that of a determined athlete. She plays golf two or three times a week, walks two miles three to five times a week, swims most days, and hits the gym at least three times per week for some free weight and elliptical work. This is how she does it.
Double Down on OTC Therapies
In order to keep up her active lifestyle, Moore relies on a variety of treatments. For example, if her hands are bothering her, she uses Aspercreme (trolamine salicylate), a topical analgesic lotion that you can buy over the counter. She also periodically turns to a topical analgesic roll-on or Salonpas (methyl salicylate topical) patches—adhesive patches that contains a variety of medications for treating inflammation and can be purchased over the counter.
When her shoulder or knees are acting up, Moore uses kinesiology therapeutic (KT) tape. KT tape is applied to muscles that surround a sore joint, providing extra support and improving imbalances in muscle strength that can occur in OA. In research published in The Journal of Physical Science, kinesiology taping therapy was found to be an effective nonsurgical intervention method for pain relief and improved range of motion in people with knee arthritis.
Keep an Active Mindset
“Use it or lose it is my philosophy,” says Moore. While you may worry that exercising with osteoarthritis could harm your joints and cause more pain, people can and should exercise when they have osteoarthritis, according to the National Arthritis Foundation. Research supports the idea that exercise is the most effective, non-drug treatment for reducing pain and improving movement in patients with osteoarthritis.
Try New Things
Living with a chronic condition means making peace with the fact that treatment is an ongoing and fluid process. According to the Orthopedics and Sports Medicine program at the University of Washington, while arthritis usually causes stiffness, pain, and fatigue, the severity varies from person to person and even from day to day. Moore has learned to experiment with different activities and products to help her find her new normal. You probably know that OA can make each day feel different, so don’t be afraid to experiment if something’s not working for you.
Break the Rules
While Moore prefers to manage her OA without medication, sometimes she has to break her own rules (see above). “I do take Tylenol (acetaminophen) if I am feeling really sore on my golf days,” she acknowledges, adding that staying active is her number one priority, since plenty of research has shown that exercise can improve pain, stiffness, and mood when it comes to osteoarthritis. Even if you’ve committed to a certain treatment plan, it’s OK to make exceptions to your strategy if it helps you feel better.
Get a Grip
Paula LeClair Szilagyi is an x-ray technician, owner of Woodbridge Stables in Lake Lynn, Pennsylvania, and an avid equestrian who rides horses up to four times a week. She also lives with OA in her hands. Most days her fingers are stiff, but not painful. Usually, her biggest complaint about her OA is that a loss of grip strength can make it harder to move patients from the cart to the bed or take lids off in the barn. Over the years, Szilagyi has learned some lessons about ways to keep OA from slowing her down.
Treatments Keep Getting Better
Over time, Szilagyi’s OA treatment has changed. When first diagnosed, she tried vitamin supplements. As her hands became more painful, she switched to Celebrex (celecoxib), a prescription nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) which relieves pain and swelling. These days, she uses Voltaren Gel (diclofenac), a topical OTC NSAID. The point: Even if your OA progresses over time, treatments are progressing, too, and there’s every reason to believe they will help you stay active your whole life.
Try Water Therapy
As a former whitewater raft guide, Szilagyi believes in the power of water to heal joint stiffness and muscle soreness. “Soaking in a hot tub really makes a big difference for my entire body and allows me to stretch better,” she says, adding that a hot bath with Epsom salts is another great option. These DIY techniques are part of a more formal arthritis treatment approach known as hydrotherapy or using warm water to relax the muscles and soothe the joints in people with OA.
Osteoarthritis is painful and dealing with it day in and day out can be a challenge. But treatments keep improving, and more and more research confirms that one of the best ways to keep OA from slowing you down—is to not slow down! Mixing up your meds, trying new treatments, and above all, staying active, are the best ways to keep OA at bay.