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Osteoarthritis: 7 Things You Need to Know

How to help those aching joints — without surgery

5. Extra pounds can make things worse

Excess weight not only puts extra pressure on the joints, it may also trigger inflammation and other changes that increase pain and stiffness, said the authors of a March study in the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. The researchers estimated that half the cases of osteoarthritis of the knee in the United States could be avoided if obese Americans could reduce their weight.

A 2011 Wake Forest University study of about 400 overweight older adults, average age 65, found that diet and exercise helped improve their mobility and reduce pain "by as much as 50 percent," reported lead author Stephen P. Messier. Even more encouraging, said Messier, patients who follow a committed diet and exercise program "will see marked improvement in pain and function in six months or less."

If all this isn't enough, excess weight also affects how people who suffer from osteoarthritis experience the disease. Research published in the journal Pain found that overweight patients with osteoarthritis experience more pain than normal-weight patients.

6. Some treatments may be a waste of time and money

After evaluating the evidence for a variety of treatments for knee osteoarthritis, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons said there was "strong evidence against" these remedies: acupuncture, taking the supplements glucosamine and chondroitin, getting injections of hyaluronic acid in the knee, and "knee scraping" surgery to wash and smooth the joint.

David Jevsevar, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon and the chair of the clinical practice guidelines work group for the AAOS, noted that a lot of these are "legacy treatments" that doctors continue to suggest because they have been used for a long time, despite a dearth of evidence.

Unfortunately, many of these longtime treatments were never scientifically tested until recently to see if they really work. "The types of randomized trials we like to see now weren't done back when these treatments were first introduced," he says.

A review of current studies suggests that some of the treatments, including acupuncture and the supplements glucosamine and chondroitin, were less effective than placebos. Although patients with osteoarthritis of the knee continue to turn to these treatments, Jevsevar believes they would be better off spending their money "on things that work."

7. You can do something about the pain

Although osteoarthritis is a progressive disease and there are no treatments to restore cartilage or reverse joint damage, there are effective treatments to improve joint functioning and reduce pain.

Manno notes that over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen and ibuprofen, along with topical application of anti-inflammatory gels, can offer pain relief.

For more severe symptoms, doctors may suggest cortisone injections. Often sufferers of osteoarthritis are hesitant to exercise because of joint pain, even though remaining sedentary only makes things worse. Taking a pain reliever can help increase physical activity, which in turn helps reduce the stiffness and pain in the joints.

For advanced osteoarthritis, where the pain is disrupting sleep and normal daily activities, your doctor may recommend joint replacement surgery.

"There are treatments we can use that could make a difference in daily functioning and pain management," Manno says. "You don't have to resign yourself to living with painful joints."

Freelance writer Jodi Helmer writes frequently on health topics for AARP.

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