Prevention, protection & pain control
Susan Biali, MD
November is the perfect time of year to talk about osteoarthritis - it's that time of year when arthritis sufferers begin to feel the cold weather's effect.
November is the perfect time to talk about osteoarthritis—it’s that time of year when arthritis sufferers begin to feel the cold weather’s effect on their achy joints.
Most people understand arthritis as being a single medical condition, but there are different types of arthritis. Osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative joint disease, is the most common type.
Signs and symptoms
Osteoarthritis is a wear-and-tear condition. The cartilage that cushions the joints erodes over time, eventually damaging the ends of the bones in the joint, resulting in painful, stiff joint movement.
The symptoms develop slowly and typically get worse over time. Osteoarthritis most commonly affects the hands, hips, knees, and spine. Sufferers experience joint pain during or after joint use, tenderness when touching the joint, loss of flexibility, swelling, and/or a grating sensation when moving the joint.
A number of factors in combination may be responsible for the development of osteoarthritis, including excess body weight, joint injury or stress, aging, muscle weakness, and genetics. Risk factors include being older, being a woman (experts aren’t sure why), and having pre-existing joint injuries or disease. It is estimated that 85 percent of Canadians will be affected by osteoarthritis by age 70.
Keeping joints healthy
Steps can be taken to help prevent osteoarthritis. Maintaining a healthy weight is the best place to start, as being overweight significantly increases stress on the joints. Try to avoid activities that are excessively hard on the joints. Gentle exercise such as walking, swimming, or biking helps to maintain joint mobility and strengthen surrounding muscles.
For those who already have osteoarthritis, gentle exercise is one of the initial means of treatment recommended to help painful joints (please check with your health care practitioner first). There are many other ways to control discomfort and prevent progression of the damage.
Maintain good posture
Poor posture can further stress worn-out joints.
Position joints to avoid excess stress
Use larger, stronger joints to carry loads. For instance, carry a shoulder bag rather than a hand-held one.
Take short breaks to rest the joint
Try to alternate heavy or repetitive tasks with easier tasks. Rest up to 24 hours if you experience a particularly painful flare-up.
Talk to a qualified physiotherapist
He or she can suggest modifications to daily activities so they are less painful and easier to perform.
Use hot and cold treatments
Use a heating pad, warm bath, or hot water bottle to apply heat to stiff joints and cool cloths or ice packs for cold treatments to soothe muscle spasms. (Caution: avoid applying cold if you have circulation problems or numbness in the affected area).
A popular natural therapy for osteoarthritis is the combination of glucosamine and chondroitin sulphate. Many studies have found benefits to using these supplements, while many others have produced unclear results.
A recent review from the University of Southern California in the January 2009 issue of Arthroscopy reported that glucosamine and chondroitin “have individually shown inconsistent efficacy in decreasing osteoarthritis pain and improving joint function.” However, the reviewers point out that these two supplements have an excellent safety profile with almost no side effects; for that reason, they are still recommended as an initial treatment option.
A 2005 study published in The Lancet suggests that acupuncture could reduce pain and improve joint functioning in the short term for people with osteoarthritis of the knee. While the effectiveness of acupuncture as a long-term osteoarthritis treatment is still unproven, it is a method that continues to be explored in clinical trials.
Now be sure to bundle up and protect those joints before you head out into the November cold—a warm cozy pair of gloves or mittens goes a long way toward preventing stiff, aching fingers.