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4 Arthritis Treatments to Try Now

Nearly 27 million Americans live with this painful joint disease. But you don't have to suffer

Stephen Barry, New Treatments for Arthritis

Stephen Barry, arthritis patient. — Nathaniel Welch/Redux; Wardrobe Styling by Julie Bent

En espanol l Stephen Barry couldn't remember a time during the past 10 years when his hip didn't cause him pain. On many occasions the discomfort was so severe, he says, that he could barely step from the dock near his Davidsonville, Maryland, home into his boat. The retired educator, 64, took medications and exercised "religiously," but nothing seemed to help.

Barry suffers from osteoarthritis (OA), an often debilitating disease caused mainly by wear and tear on the joints. In its most advanced form, OA results in the complete loss of cartilage in a joint, causing bone to rub against bone. Some 27 million Americans have OA — more than any other chronic disease except heart disease and cancer.

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Until fairly recently, doctors have been limited in their treatment options: exercise, anti-inflammatory drugs, physical therapy and, more dramatically, joint replacement — the route Barry finally took to get the relief he needed. In recent years, though, several lesser-known treatments have emerged.

1. Pain Relief

In 2010, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the drug Cymbalta to treat pain associated with osteoarthritis. First approved in 2004 to counteract major depressive disorders, Cymbalta boosts levels of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain, inhibiting pain perception. But Cymbalta doesn't work for everyone. That's why researchers are increasingly excited about new ways to block nerve growth factors, proteins in cells that are consistently elevated in those who experience chronic pain.

In particular, doctors have high hopes for a medication called tanezumab, which seems to inhibit nerve growth factors. In 2010, the FDA halted clinical trials of tanezumab after some patients' osteoarthritis worsened. After reexamining the data, the FDA has cleared the way for more controlled clinical trials to resume.

2. Injections

Our joints are bathed in synovial fluid, a clear, gel-like substance that provides lubrication. Within the synovial fluid is hyaluronic acid, which deteriorates in those with OA. Doctors will frequently inject synthetic hyaluronic acid into patients' joints to reduce pain. "I'd say 70 percent of my patients get 70 percent better," says Fred Redfern, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon in Henderson, Nevada, who treats hundreds of patients this way. "It buys time, and side effects are rare."

Platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections — which involve withdrawing blood from a patient, spinning it to separate the platelets and then injecting the concentrated platelets into a joint — also have shown great promise. In a study published last year, 15 patients were injected with PRP in a knee and monitored for 12 months. Most experienced a decrease in pain.

Even more recently, stem cell injections have been used to treat knee injuries, especially in professional athletes. A study published in January in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery found that patients with osteoarthritis who received a stem cell injection also experienced reduced pain.

Next page: Can a knee distraction substantially reduce pain? »

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