Osteoarthritis – A Useful Guide For Managing Your Symptoms
Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis with around 1 million people seeing their GP about it every year and accounts for 115,000 hospital admissions each year in the UK. It is a painful condition affecting the joints, most commonly the knees, hips, spine and hands, where there is damage to the cartilage and bone and inflammation of the tissues around the joint. This causes pain, swelling, joint stiffness and can severely affect the persons’ ability to carry out daily activities and hence reduce quality of life. Osteoarthritis is also known as ‘degenerative joint disease’, or ‘wear and tear’.
Sufferers usually complain of increased pain and stiffness in cold weather, so our chartered physiotherapists at one 2 one Therapy have provided some useful information on self- management for the winter months ahead. Physiotherapists are experts in body movement. They understand how muscles and joints work and have the skills to assess, diagnose and treat all musculoskeletal problems including arthritis.
A physiotherapist will offer advice and reassurance, help you to feel confident about managing your condition and show you how to protect your joints. They will address any concerns you may have and set appropriate goals to keep you as active as possible.
The core treatment for osteoarthritis is exercise (as recommended by the NICE guidelines). Not only will this help relieve pain but it helps to restore function by improving the range of movement of the joint and strengthening the muscles that support it. Staying active is crucial, but it is also important to know your limitations and not overdo it to avoid flaring up the condition. Pace yourself- Little and often is the key! Graded exercises start slowly and increase in small steps. You may have a slight increase in pain when you first start, but this should improve as your confidence and strength improves. Improving your general fitness and stamina will help you to increase your activity level without increasing your pain. Regular exercises will also stimulate production of your body’s natural pain relieving hormone (endorphins).
Rhian teaching strengthening exercises for the knee
The other benefit to exercise is to lose weight or maintain a healthy body weight as the heavier you are, the more forces are going through your joints and so the pain will inevitably be worse. Being overweight or obese plays a major part in your symptoms so try to maintain a healthy body weight.
You can try gentle exercise such as walking, swimming, yoga, cycling to help ease your symptoms but you may need to be prescribed a specific exercise programme by a chartered physiotherapist to deal with your individual needs. The important thing is to find an exercise that you enjoy so you do it regularly. Most leisure centres and private health clubs will have exercise classes that cater for the over 50’s so it would be worth checking out what classes are available near you. It’s a great way to meet others and exercise in a fun environment.
Pain management – there are several options you can try.
Cold packs can relieve an inflamed joint and hot packs can soothe stiff achy joints. You can make your own cold packs by wrapping a bag of frozen peas in a towel and applying it to the area for 10 mins. Make sure it’s not applied directly to the skin or you may suffer from an ice burn. You can use a hot water bottle as a hot pack or have a soak in a hot bath. Again make sure it’s not too hot as you don’t want to burn yourself. Alternatively you can purchase hot and cold packs which can either go in the freezer or microwave and usually consist of gel or wheat.
Joint supports may be helpful in protecting the joint during exercise or activity. Some joint supports have thermal properties which also keep the joint warm, increasing circulation and hence easing your pain and stiffness. For advice and fitting, speak to your physiotherapist regarding the best joint support for you.
If you have arthritis in your back, hip, knee or ankle, you may benefit from a walking aid such as a walking stick, elbow crutches, zimmer frame/rollator. These can help ease the pain by taking pressure off your arthritic joints whilst maintaining function and activity. It is important that you try to stay as active and independent as possible – if you don’t use it, you will lose it!
TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) works by blocking pain messages to your brain and altering your perception of pain. A TENS machine is a small electrical devise that sends pulses to your nerve endings via pads placed on your skin. This causes a tingling sensation that you may find soothing.
Acupuncture – Studies have shown that acupuncture may be a useful intervention in the treatment of arthritis. It involves inserting fine sterile needles into the skin at specific points to stimulate energy flow and restore balance. It seems to relieve pain by stimulating your body’s own pain relieving hormones (endorphins) and diverting the painful sensations that are sent to your brain from the damaged tissues. This pain relief may only last a short period when you begin treatment, but following a course of treatment (usually 1-2 sessions per week over 4-6 weeks) can bring long term benefit. Most of our clients experience significant pain relief by having a course of acupuncture initially, then returning for a single ‘top up’ session every 1-2 months or when they feel they need it.
Medication – Your GP may prescribe you one or more of the following types of drugs:-
Analgesics (painkillers), Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) to reduce inflammation and Steroids which also reduce inflammation and can be directly injected into a joint.
Your GP may refer you to an orthopaedic surgeon if you have severe arthritis and your function/quality of life is being affected by your condition. A joint replacement may be recommended in this instance.
Diet and supplements – Despite much interest and research in this subject there is little evidence that diet can cause arthritis and the converse that avoidance of certain foods can improve it. Certain food supplements can help with pain and these include fish oils. Some people find glucosamine help. The advice is to eat a healthy balanced diet and to keep your weight within acceptable limits.
If you are concerned about your arthritis or want to know more about symptom management and relief, please consult your local GP or a chartered physiotherapist. The following links maybe of benefit – National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (www.nice.org.uk), The chartered society of physiotherapy (www.csp.org.uk), Arthritis Research UK (www.arthritisresearchuk.org) One 2 One Therapy (www.one2onetherapy.net)
Written by Rhian Davies Bsc (Hons), MCSP and Angharad Mason Bsc(Hons) MSCP
Chartered Physiotherapists specialising in musculoskeletal conditions based at One 2 One Therapy Bridgend, which is a private physiotherapy clinic situated on Bridgend Industrial Estate.