July 1, 2022

The Ultimate Guide to Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis affects over 32.5 million U.S. adults. Read to learn more about the risk factors and treatment options available to manage your osteoarthritis.

What is Osteoarthritis?

Also known as wear and tear arthritis, osteoarthritis (OA) is a chronic condition marked by cartilage degeneration in joints that often causes stiffness, pain, and physical impairment. Osteoarthritis belongs to a family of over 100 progressive diseases called arthritis, all of which are characterized by inflammation of one or more joints. The joints most often impacted by osteoarthritis are the knees, hips, and hands. [1]

According to the CDC, over 32.5 million adults [1] have osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis most commonly develops in adults over 50 although it can impact younger people as well, particularly those who’ve experienced a joint injury. Women are at higher risk for developing OA than men.

Symptoms of Osteoarthritis

Many diagnosed with arthritis struggle with stiffness, lack of mobility, and pain ranging from mild to severe. Osteoarthritis is a progressive condition that worsens over time and is often characterized by unpredictable flare-ups and remissions. For this reason, dealing with osteoarthritis can prove both mentally and physically challenging.

Osteoarthritis symptoms can include:

  • Pain, throbbing, or aching of the joint (can worsen at night or after strenuous activities)

  • Stiffness and limited mobility (often occurs in the morning and after periods of inactivity)

  • Swelling around the joint

  • Muscular weakness surrounding the joint

  • Buckling or instability of the joint

  • Falling more (due to joint weakness)

  • Clicking sounds as joint moves

Causes of Osteoarthritis

The medical community used to believe that osteoarthritis resulted from joint damage. We now understand joint damage is a symptom of osteoarthritis, which is progressive and degenerative by nature.

Unfortunately, many of the risk factors for osteoarthritis are outside of our control, including: age, sex, genetics, and joint injury.

On the flip side, several risk factors for osteoarthritis remain within our scope of control, including: excess weight, overuse, and weak muscles.

Mechanics of Osteoarthritis in the Body

Osteoarthritis is marked by the steady decline of joint health and function over time. To better understand how to deal with osteoarthritis, it’s helpful to look at the underlying mechanisms and body parts involved.

Take, for instance, your knee joint. When healthy, the ends of our bones are coated in a flexible, durable, rubbery substance called cartilage. Cartilage provides a cushion between the two bones, facilitating smooth movement and protecting the bones

Surrounding and cushioning the cartilage is a nutrient-dense liquid called synovial fluid, which facilitates movement by lubricating the cartilage and providing it with essential nutrients that keep the cartilage healthy.

If you experience a knee injury, your synovial fluid provides increased nutrition and inflammatory agents like cytokines that lead to short-term swelling and inflammation meant to protect the joint as it heals. As the joint heals, the swelling of the joint decreases. In these cases, inflammation is a defense response meant to protect us from injury. 

But with osteoarthritis, the injury isn’t acute – it’s chronic and progressive. So when the body triggers inflammation to heal the joint, the level of inflammatory chemicals remain elevated in the synovial fluid, further contributing to cartilage degeneration over time. Additionally, these inflammatory chemicals help boost the production of bone which, when paired with cartilage loss, can lead to the painful and physically limiting experience of bone rubbing against bone and the development of bone spurs.

Living with Osteoarthritis: Treatment & Self Care Options

Although there’s currently no surefire way to reverse or heal osteoarthritis, there are many pathways to lessen its severity. If you believe you may have osteoarthritis, it’s important to discuss your concerns with your physician to help identify the best options for you.

Medications

There are several medications known to target and reduce the symptoms of osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis medications come in a variety of forms [2], including: patches, creams, syrups, pills, and injections delivered directly into the joint.

Commonly prescribed medications include:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS). This class of drugs (ibuprofen, aspirin, naproxen) is the most often prescribed for its impact on pain and inflammation.

  • Analgesics. This class of drugs targets pain relief and includes opioids and acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol).

  • Counterirritants. These drugs distract from OA pain by triggering feelings of warmth, cold, or itchiness at the joint. Ingredients often include menthol, lidocaine, and capsaicin.

  • Corticosteroids. Like the hormone cortisol, these drugs contain anti-inflammatory properties and are taken by mouth or injected by a physician.

  • Platelet-Rich Plasma. This medication contains proteins to help lessen inflammation and pain, and is available as an injection.

Surgery

If the knee joint is too damaged and medication isn’t working, physicians may suggest surgery as an alternative. Joint replacement surgery is most often used for osteoarthritis of the knee or hip. Surgery usually involves complete joint replacement (arthroplasty), repositioning the bones (osteotomy), or fusing the affected bones together (arthrodesis).

Exercise

Although it might seem surprising, considering osteoarthritis involves damaged joints, exercise actually helps increase mobility and strengthen muscles to protect the joint. If you’re new to exercise, it’s best to start small to build your strength and confidence.

There are four areas to target with your workouts:

  • Cardio-based aerobic workouts

  • Strength-building resistance workouts

  • Balance-focused exercises

  • Stretching exercise

All four types of exercise increase strength, stability, and mobility for the impacted joints. The CDC recommends [1] roughly 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each week. 

Low-impact exercises like walking, swimming, cycling, or dancing can be great, low-pressure options to get your body moving. 

Weight Loss

Weight loss impacts osteoarthritis in two ways. First, it lightens the load your joints are under, reducing strain and degradation. Additionally, increased weight can lead to higher productions of leptin.

Produced by fat, leptin helps our bodies recognize when we’re full and impacts our energy and mood. It also helps boost immune activity. And while a strong immune system helps ward off illness, too much immune activity increases inflammation. Research shows [3] that people with OA have higher leptin levels in their synovial fluid, triggering the release of inflammatory cytokines that cause cartilage breakdown. The more fat, the more leptin gets produced.

Weight loss can help decrease your body’s production of leptin, as well as remove undue strain from your joints. As a reminder, it’s important to talk with your doctor before beginning any weight loss program to make sure it’s the best choice for you.

Nutrition

Not only can a healthy diet help lose excess weight – certain foods positively impact osteoarthritis! Adding foods to your diet that help reduce inflammation may make OA symptoms more manageable. From oleocanthal (a core component in olive oil that one study suggests may be as or more effective than non-steroidal anti-inflammatories [4]) to polyphenols and vitamins that act as powerful antioxidants and fight inflammation; there are many nutrients that can impact OA.

Consider adding in:

  • Citrus fruits, strawberries, broccoli, brussel sprouts, peppers (vitamin C; antioxidants that target inflammation) [5]

  • Salmon, herring, mackerel, cod-liver oil, flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts (omega-3s)

  • Extra virgin olive oil, walnut oil, grapeseed oil (oleocanthal; targets inflammation) [4]

  • Green tea [6], coffee[7], garbanzo beans, black-eyed peas [8] (polyphenols; antioxidants that target inflammation)

  • Strawberries, tart cherries, apples, ginger, tomatoes (melatonin; anti-inflammatory) [9]

Sleep

Sleep is a restorative process that gives our bodies time to heal and process the strains of the day. So it shouldn’t be surprising that with poor sleep comes poor health. Adequate sleep is critical to giving your muscles a chance to rest and reduce inflammation. Additionally, research suggests [10] poor sleep can make us more susceptible to pain, so try to make sure you’re getting a full night’s sleep. But, that’s often easier said than done if you have osteoarthritis. It can be hard to find a comfortable position that doesn’t hurt, then to actually fall asleep. 

If you’re struggling with sleep, try setting up a relaxing nighttime routine that helps calm your mind and relax your body, so it’s easier to drift to sleep. It’s best to avoid computer and tech screens that emit mentally-stimulating blue light. In addition, you can try meditating, listening to relaxing music, soaking in a warm bath for a bit. All can help relax after a stressful day. If your mind and joints are still distracting you, try an app like headspace or calm. A low dose of melatonin (typically 0.3mg) may also help.

Heat or Cold

Applying hot or cold compresses can provide relief from chronic OA pain. Heating pads increase blood flow to boost circulation, which helps reduce pain and stiffness. If you’re starting a new exercise program and are sore, try applying heat before working out, for up to 20 minutes. 

If you’re experiencing swelling, be cautious with applying heat, as the increased blood flow may increase swelling. Instead, try cold compresses, which help by restricting blood flow and limiting swelling and pain. If you’re exercising, try applying a cold compress afterwards, for up to 20 minutes. Experiment to determine which approach feels better for you

Natural Holistic Therapies

Integrative treatments and supplements that target joint inflammation and pain offer another pathway to managing osteoarthritis.

Ginger, fish oil, and green tea supplements are all popular methods of fighting inflammation, which many people report as having helped their OA pain. [6][9

Turmeric additionally has been found to have OA-specific benefits and may help with inflammation, swelling, mobility, and pain. Research suggests that about one gram per day of circumin – the core ingredient in turmeric – may actually have a similar effect as analgesic medicines. [11]

Additionally, many have found that integrative therapies offer relief. These providers can include: chiropractors, physical therapists, massage therapy, and energy specialists.

While osteoarthritis can be debilitating, there are numerous paths you can explore to manage and lessen your osteoarthritis. At Healing Lab, we specialize in energy healing for osteoarthritis and helping people get back to the activities that bring them joy.

Reach out to schedule your Free Holistic Health Assessment with us today.

Book a free 30-minute consultation

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