How to Get Through Your Day With Osteoarthritis

by Lara DeSanto Health Writer

Osteoarthritis (OA) can be a major pain, literally—especially when it interferes with your ability to live life the way you want to. Whether you’re trying to get through the workday or play with your grandkids, joint stiffness, swelling, and reduced range of motion from OA can seriously get in the way. But while this chronic condition gets worse over time, there are things you can do to help slow its progression and minimize your pain. We talked to the experts to get the facts on the best ways to feel better, stay active, and prevent arthritis from holding you back.

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What Is OA, Anyway?

When the cartilage between your bones, which acts as a cushion, starts to break down, bone starts rubbing against bone, it causes osteoarthritis, or painful swelling in your joints. OA can cause stiffness first thing in the morning and pain and achiness during or after certain activities. OA is the most common type of arthritis, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Usually when you hear someone talking about plain old “arthritis,” OA is what they mean. Most people with OA develop the condition in their 50s, but others can get it as a result of injury or obesity.

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Consider Over-the-Counter Medications

There are several over-the-counter drug options that can be effective when it comes to reducing OA-related pain, says Sonja Rosen, M.D., chief of geriatric medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. You can buy an extra-strength formula of acetaminophen called Tylenol Arthritis. Acetaminophen is among the safest options because it tends of have fewer side effects than nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs(NSAIDs), says Dr. Rosen. But if that doesn't cut it for you, NSAID options like Advil or Motrin (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen) can still be very effective. Just follow dosing instructions carefully and be sure to discuss with your doctor.

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Try Topical Pain Relief

Don’t want to pop a pill? “Some people have good results with topical creams or gels like Icy Hot or Bengay,” says Eric G. Meinberg, M.D., professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of California, San Francisco. “Capsaicin creams can also be useful.” If you’re targeting muscle pain, go for a heated option, like a thermal patch, whereas cold packs can be helpful for swelling and joint pain, he says. Lidoderm patches, which contain a local anesthetic, can also relieve OA pain. “You can buy those over the counter as Salonpas pads, which are pretty inexpensive,” says Dr. Meinberg.

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Think About Steroid Injections

We know—we’re not big fans of needles either. But when it comes to managing arthritis, an injection of corticosteroids into the affected joints can be super helpful, says Dr. Meinberg. “An injection can be done in the office by a primary-care doctor or orthopedic surgeon, and it can really reduce the pain, inflammation, and irritation and help maintain function,” he says. While it doesn’t work for every single patient, Dr. Meinberg says some people’s injections work for six months to a year. Typically, you can get up to three shots a year, and it’s most common for shoulder and knee joints.

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See a Physical Therapist...

Working with a physical therapist once or twice a week can help strengthen your muscles, which is key when you have arthritic joints. “As muscles fatigue, they’re less able to support the joint, and it becomes sort of like a wobbly grocery cart—that can increase some of the irritation and pain from arthritis,” says Dr. Meinberg. “So stronger muscles can be very helpful for controlling motions and preventing any irritation, mild injury, or damage.”

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…Or an Occupational Therapist

Occupational therapists are super helpful in suggesting ways to adapt and function better. “For example, they could review ergonomics or how a person is walking, and provide some assistance in how to do it better. They can also suggest assistive devices that might make life easier and less likely to exacerbate arthritis symptoms,” Dr. Meinberg says. OTs also specialize in physical therapy for the hand and upper extremities, explains Dr. Meinberg. People with arthritis in their shoulder, elbow, hand or wrist might see an occupational therapist for strengthening and motion activities.

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Get Gadget Help

Beyond patches and pills, there are other products you can buy that can make daily living with OA more manageable. Enter assistive devices. Jar openers and adaptive knives, for example, can make working in the kitchen with joint pain easier. If you’re wobbly on your feet, try a cane or walker. Braces can help stabilize arthritic joints, too.

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Exercise to Prevent Pain...

Exercise helps you maintain strength and range of motion. “It’s also good for improving balance and endurance so you’re less likely to fall or injure yourself and worsen symptoms,” says Dr. Meinberg. Sometimes, being heavier can make OA worse because it increases pressure on joints, says Dr. Meinberg. Even losing just 10 or 20 pounds can make a massive difference on the amount of force on your joints, he explains. He’s even seen OA patients who were told they needed a knee replacement avoid the surgery completely by losing weight.

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…But Work Out Wisely

Shoot for some cardio exercise five days a week and resistance training at least twice a week, says Dr. Rosen. Try low-impact exercises that won’t put intense pressure on your joints—using the elliptical at the gym, swimming, cycling, or plain old walking. Dr. Rosen recommends the Arthritis Foundation Exercise Program as a great place to start—it’s often offered at your local YMCA. Make sure you talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise program, she says.

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Supplement Cautiously

Curious about supplements? Talk with your doc. “There is some evidence that vitamin D can help with arthritis pain, and vitamin B12 can help with neuropathy, which patients with arthritis often have,” Dr. Rosen explains. Some research also finds curcumin—a natural substance found in turmeric—may help reduce joint pain and swelling in people with arthritis. Other research suggests glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate tablets may ease symptoms. Remember, supplements have their limits with arthritis pain management: “Don't spend a lot of money on them—there is limited evidence, and they aren't FDA approved,” Dr. Rosen says.

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Eat to Beat OA Pain

Your diet may also impact the pain you feel from your OA, says Dr. Rosen. “There is growing evidence that a diet low in inflammatory foods is very important, as is avoiding sugar and foods with white flour—such as pasta and pizza—which promote inflammation,” she says. “A Mediterranean ‘whole food’ diet can help fight inflammation and contains antioxidants that are good for arthritis.” So what should you add to your shopping list? Fish, fruits, and veggies are all staples of the Med diet, as is olive oil, nuts, and beans.

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Make a Game Plan

There are many options for pain and symptom management that can help stop OA from dominating how you live your life and shifting it to the background. Talk with your doctor about putting together a toolbox that best suits your needs. “It really goes back to the old adage, ‘if it hurts, then don’t do it’—balanced with ‘use it or lose it,’” says Dr. Meinberg. “If you’re doing something that’s irritating or painful, you probably need to dial it back. At the same time, it’s important to maintain as much function and endurance as you possibly can for your overall health and wellbeing.”

Lara DeSanto
Meet Our Writer
Lara DeSanto

Lara is a former digital editor for HealthCentral, covering Sexual Health, Digestive Health, Head and Neck Cancer, and Gynecologic Cancers. She continues to contribute to HealthCentral while she works towards her masters in marriage and family therapy and art therapy. In a past life, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs and as a news writer/editor at WTOP.com.