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Action Plan for Osteoarthritis

Stiff, painful joints are typical symptoms of osteoarthritis, also called degenerative joint disease.

Joint pain is caused by a breakdown and destruction of cartilage that allows the bones in a joint to glide over one another, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. With the cartilage no longer there, pain, swelling, and loss of joint motion results.

To relieve pain and increase function, joint replacement surgery is an increasingly popular choice. If your X-rays show there's little to no cartilage cushioning your joints and you've reached a point at which you can't perform everyday activities, such as walking around the block, you may be a candidate for joint replacement.

Talk with your doctor to weigh the risks and benefits.

But if it's not that bad, you can do a lot in the meantime. The following are ways to decrease pain, improve mobility, and protect a sore joint from further injury -- and maybe even avoid surgery.

Slim down

If you're overweight (your body mass index is 25 or greater), adjust your calorie intake to lose those extra pounds. Even weighing a few pounds more than your recommended weight can create undue wear and tear on major weight-bearing joints, such as knees and hips.

Moreover, weight loss also can help reduce your pain level, because it reduces the stress on your hips, knees, and back.

Get moving

To prevent further joint deterioration, it's important to be physically active every day because exercise strengthens the muscles surrounding an ailing joint.

Stronger muscles protect joints by absorbing the force placed upon them. They also help hold joints in a better position mechanically so joints don't wear as quickly.

Moderate physical activity for 30 minutes most days of the week is recommended. You can even break it up into three 10-minute increments. Activities such as swimming, walking, cycling, yoga, and Pilates are good choices.

If you need help getting started, talk with your doctor. If possible, work with a personal trainer or physical therapist to develop a weight-training or physical activity program that helps maintain muscle strength and flexibility while enhancing joint stability.

These are the types of exercise to consider:

  • Strength exercises. These can be performed with exercise bands (inexpensive devices that add resistance), or with light weights.

  • Aerobic activities. These keep your heart and lungs in shape.

  • Range of motion activities. These keep your joints limber.

  • Agility and balance exercises. These help you maintain balance and daily living skills.

  • Neck and back strength exercises. These help keep your spine strong and limber.

Check with your health care provider for advice on whether to exercise if a joint is sore or if swelling is present. Ask if you should use pain-relievers such as analgesics or anti-inflammatory medication to make exercising easier, or use ice afterward.

Consider pain meds

To manage joint pain, ask your doctor about taking medication, such as Tylenol (acetaminophen).

If that doesn't help, your doctor may recommend you take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, naproxen, or aspirin, or a prescription medication.

It's important to keep in touch with your doctor regarding the medications you take and your pain and mobility level. Working together, you can better manage your condition.