16 ways to beat arthritis
Arthritis, which has been diagnosed in more than 46 million Americans, refers to a set of over 100 diseases and conditions that cause pain, aching and stiffness around the joints. The most common types are osteoarthritis (in which the joint cartilage breaks down) and rheumatoid arthritis (an autoimmune disease in which the membrane lining the joint eats away at the joint). But there are ways to lessen joint pain, including losing weight, exercising, eating a healthy diet and more! Browse our strategies here to be on your way to a happy, healthy and pain-free you.
Get a Diagnosis
How you treat arthritis -- the most common cause of disability in this country -- depends on the type you have, so talk to your doctor to make sure you understand the source of your joint pain. "With rheumatoid arthritis, the earlier you get diagnosed, the better, because we have drugs (disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs, such as methotrexate and leflunomide, and biologic response modifiers) that actually change the usually significant disability caused by the disease," says Patience White, M.D., chief public health officer of the Arthritis Foundation. "Drugs for osteoarthritis can help with pain, but they don't slow the progression like weight loss and physical activity can."
Yep, sorry, the advice you never want to hear is the number-one thing you can do to lessen your lower extremity joint pain. In a study in Denmark, obese patients with knee osteoarthritis who reduced their weight by 10 percent improved their function by 28 percent. What's more, due to the mechanics of your joints, for every pound you gain, you increase the pressure on your knees by 3 pounds and the pressure on your hips by 6. "If you lose 10 to 15 pounds, you'll cut your pain in half and decrease the progression of the disease," says Dr. White, who's also a professor of Medicine at George Washington University School of Medicine. "And, unlike drugs, there are no side effects."
Another simple way to reduce arthritis pain? Exercise. But stick to low-impact activities -- such as walking, stretching and swimming -- that won't put too much strain on the joints. Go to the Arthritis Foundation's website for information on the classes they offer -- including aquatics and tai chi -- that have been proven to reduce pain and lessen stiffness.
Think Carefully About COX-2s
Developed to reduce pain and inflammation, the class of drugs known as COX-2 selective nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) includes Bextra and Vioxx, which were taken off the market in 2005. Celebrex is still available by prescription, but now includes a warning of the increased risk of adverse cardiovascular events (such as heart attacks and stroke) associated with the drug. "We have to be extremely cautious regarding the use of these medications in the elderly, and in patients with other risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol and a family history of coronary artery disease," says Uzma Haque, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University.
Tummy Troubles with Other Painkillers
What's the alternative to COX-2s? Non-selective NSAIDs reduce pain, inflammation and swelling. While they don't carry the same risk of cardiovascular problems, these drugs -- which include aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen (Aleve) -- increase the risk of gastrointestinal problems such as upset stomach and bleeding. Analgesics, such as acetaminophen, have fewer side effects, but they only relieve pain, without affecting the inflammation and swelling.
Looking for temporary relief without popping a pill? There are several topical creams and ointments that can ease pain. Counterirritants (made with wintergreen oil, camphor or eucalyptus) stimulate the nerve endings to distract the brain from your aches. Salicylates thwart prostaglandins, body chemicals involved in pain and inflammation. And capsaicin (made with a compound found in hot peppers) depletes the neurotransmitter responsible for sending pain messages to the brain.
What You Need to Know About Steroids
While corticosteroids (given as shots or in pill form) play a huge role in reducing inflammation, they carry serious side effects such as increasing your risk for osteoporosis, cataracts and elevated blood sugar. If you and your doctor choose steroid treatment, the Arthritis Foundation recommends the lowest dose possible for the shortest time possible.
From braces to special shoe inserts to ergonomic tools, there are plenty of products on the market to make life easier for people with arthritis. Are the goods worth it? "They can be useful to get people going," says Dr. White. "I'm all for anything that gets you moving. Just check with your doctor to see that what you're getting is appropriate."
Pins and Needles
Acupuncture, a traditional Chinese medicine practice in which tiny needles are stuck into select points in the body, seems to be helpful in relieving pain in some patients -- without the side effects of medications. (Traditional practitioners say the needle pricks free trapped energy in the body, while some Western docs think acupuncture causes the body to release pain-reducing endorphins.) A study funded by the National Institute of Alternative and Complementary Medicine suggested that acupuncture could relieve pain and improve function in knee osteoarthritis patients.