Osteoarthritis is a very common condition in the UK. 33% of people over 45 years old have it, and this rises to 49% of women and 42% of men over 75 years old. There are several factors which increase your risk of developing it, including overusing an injured joint, aging, gender (women are higher-risk) family history and obesity.
While it can be painful and frustrating, there are ways you can look after yourself by managing osteoarthritis symptoms.
Symptoms of osteoarthritis
In healthy joints, each bone is capped with a layer of cartilage that acts as a lubricant, stopping the bones from grinding together as your joint moves. Osteoarthritis develops when this protective cap wears down. Joints become painful and stiff, and you may experience swelling and problems with mobility.
Osteoarthritis can affect any joint in the body; but joints that are doing the most work are most commonly affected. This includes the knees and hips which bear most of your body’s weight, and the delicate joints in your hands and fingers which are constantly in use.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for osteoarthritis. However there are several things you can do to manage your condition and often prevent it from worsening.
Managing osteoarthritis: self care
If your osteoarthritis symptoms are mild, the NHS suggests you manage your symptoms using the following self care measures:
The Arthritis Research foundation recommends short sessions of regular exercise as a way to ease joint stiffness and improve movement. It’s easy to fit thirty minutes of exercise into your routine. Exercise can also be a good way to lose extra weight, taking strain off your joints.
As an added bonus, physical activity is a powerful mood-booster. It releases endorphins in the brain which will give you a burst of satisfaction and a feeling of well-being.
Arthritis Research recommends focusing on three basic types of exercise. Including a bit of each of these in your routine, even for ten minutes at a time, will give the maximum benefit.
Stretches: to improve joint flexibility and remedy pain
Strength training: building muscle surrounding your joints will support and stabilise them, reducing pain
Cardiovascular training: good for all-round fitness and a healthy heart.
Your GP, or a physiotherapist, will be able to recommend an exercise program to best benefit you and your symptoms.
Obesity can place additional strain on your affected joints, worsening your symptoms. This is especially true for the weightbearing joints in the knees and hips. If you’re overweight, losing some weight can reduce your pain and improve mobility.
You can talk to your GP about weight management and diet and exercise for weight loss.
The Arthritis Research foundation states that paracetamol can help with joint pain and stiffness, especially during periods of bad pain or while exercising. There are also several anti inflammatory creams available to help relieve pain for specific joints, such as the hand and knee. They don’t tend to work well on deeper joints such as the hip.
Applying a heat pack or hot water bottle to a painful joint can also help.
Always consult your doctor or a pharmacist before using medication to combat pain.
Wearing cushioned shoes with thick soles can help absorb shock, taking stress off your hips, knees and back while walking. You can also use a walking stick for the same purpose, especially if the joint on one side is more painful.
If you have a lot of physical work to do, you could try spacing it out over the course of the day so you don’t overwork your joints.
Osteoarthritis is a long term condition, and you may find yourself frustrated and stressed due to your symptoms. It’s important to look after yourself mentally and emotionally as well as physically. If you need support, a mental health professional can help guide you towards positive thinking patterns and ways of managing stress.
If your symptoms are more severe, your GP may recommend additional treatment such as stronger painkillers, physiotherapy, or in some cases surgery.
While osteoarthritis can be a painful condition, with some guided symptom management you should be able to adjust. You should always check in with your GP if you feel your symptoms are unmanageable and impacting your quality of life. More resources about osteoarthritis are available on the NHS website and the Arthritis Research UK website, who also have a helpline on 0800 5200 520.