In addition to medications and established non-drug treatments, certain alternative therapies such as massage, supplements, mindful exercises and medication can also play important roles in managing osteoarthritis (OA) pain for the 27 million American adults who suffer from it.
Rather than one disease with a few telltale symptoms, arthritis consists of roughly 100 different joint-related conditions that destroy joints, bones, muscles, cartilage and other connective tissues of the body. Of these, OA is the most common.
According to the Arthritis Foundation, OA is characterized by the breakdown of joint cartilage, which cushions the ends of bones and allows for functional movement. Cartilage and joint fluid lubricates the joints, easing the bones’ back-and-forth motions. When these components break down, movement becomes difficult and painful, causing stiffness and reduced activity as you age.
The statistics on OA are staggering:
- Two-thirds of people with arthritis are younger than 65 years old.
- By 2030, an estimated 67 million American adults will have arthritis.
- Arthritis and related conditions cost the U.S. economy $128 billion per year in medical care and indirect expenses, including lost wages and productivity.
- Women are more likely to get OA than men, and OA in women is more likely to be severe.
Despite the frequency of the disease, there’s no cure. Some treatments like physical therapy and weekly massage may be helpful for some sufferers for a period of time but not others. Exercise and diet play key roles in weight management, which is an important part of the pain management approach to OA. .
There may not be a cure for OA, but there are many ways to keep the discomfort at bay, stay limber and improve range of motion in those joints that cause you anxiety, swelling and occasional sleepless nights.
Try these alternative approaches to OA
Vitamins C, D, E, K and beta-carotene. Some researchers believe that people who consume a diet lower in vitamin C are at greater risk for developing certain types of arthritis. Vitamin C has been shown to build collagen, a key component in cartilage, which helps to cushion joints. Some research suggested that vitamins D, E and beta-carotene may reduce the risk of progression of OA, but not its development. Additional research suggested low vitamin D intake is associated with increased risk of progression. Vitamin K deficiency has been associated with increased risk of developing knee OA, research shows.
Regular activity. Despite the common misconception that exercise can harm your joints, in the absence of acute injury there’s no evidence to support this idea. Studies show that regular, gentle exercise such as biking, walking and gardening pack positive health benefits for joint tissues, and exercise is a natural antidepressant for patients who suffer from chronic joint discomfort and feel down.
Acupuncture. Many studies have shown the benefits in pain reduction, but acupuncture doesn’t necessarily alleviate pain and symptoms for everyone or at every particular arthritis site. The number of sessions may be an important factor. According to Arthritis Today, in a German study of more than 300,000 people with knee OA, those who received 15 sessions of acupuncture combined with usual medical care had less stiffness, improved function and superior quality of life than participants who had routine care alone.
Fish oils. Omega-3 fatty acids are believed to fight inflammation and pain associated with OA. The risk of arthritis and heart disease both increase with age, so it’s a bonus that fish oils also benefit cardiovascular disease. Fish oil is a common source of omega-3 fatty acids and widely available in bottled or encapsulated form. You can also get omega-3s in your diet by eating salmon, anchovies, rainbow trout, herring, mackerel, Pacific oysters, flaxseed and walnuts.
Lean body weight. Nothing can help achy knees quite as effectively as losing 10 pounds. According to research at the Arthritis Foundation, losing just one pound of body weight can reduce the pressure on knee joints by four pounds; losing 10 pounds reduces 40 pounds of pressure on the knee joints. Walking, stationary biking, weight lifting and swimming are excellent exercise options for OA patients and their caregivers to do together.
Glucosamine and chondroitin. A number of studies suggested that glucosamine hydrochloride and sodium chondroitin sulfate used in combination might reduce pain in participants with knee OA. Sixteen different rheumatology research trials were examined at the University of Utah School of Medicine, and the supplements in tandem were found to be only somewhat beneficial, on average. Individual results can vary with almost any treatment, and some medical practitioners suggest that interested patients give supplements a try for at least six months.
Take the next steps
When you have attempted to lower your body weight, tried medications (aspirin works for many sufferers) and maybe even dabbled in acupuncture and massage therapy to ease the aches, try these practical steps:
Sign up for t’ai chi and yoga. Eastern practices pack many health benefits for the elderly and those who suffer from arthritis, by increasing flexibility around the spine, knees and hips to lubricate painful joints. Just 20 to 30 minutes of gentle movements every day can help.
Examine your health insurance. See if your health insurance covers weekly massage therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy and acupuncture, and make those appointments immediately.
Try water therapy. Besides swimming and floating, specific pool exercises can help ease OA pain. Performing regular walking or strength training in a specially led underwater class helps create a real-time support network for many patients, and adds strength and flexibility to your exercise regimen without any pounding of your joints on concrete or a hard gym floor.
Stretch twice a day. Stretching regularly for 10 minutes when you first wake up in the morning and again at night before you fall asleep helps reduce OA’s site-specific stiffness and pain. A physical therapist can help you stretch if you’re not familiar with the moves, and he may also try working with sports tape or traction to address a specific painful area.
Zap inflammation. New studies debut every month showcasing supplements or foods that may offer anti-inflammatory properties, including green tea, fish oils and, yes, broccoli. Sulforaphane, a compound in broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables, may block enzymes linked to joint destruction and inflammation. It’s also packed with vitamin K, which may slow progression of OA according to research funded by the Arthritis Foundation at Boston University School of Medicine. (As if you needed another reason to eat your veggies.)