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Joint Venture | Spring 2008 Out Here Magazine

Protect yourself from the pain of osteoarthritis

By Bethanne Black

Aches and pains that accompany graying hair and reading glasses may seem like an unavoidable fact of life, but a few slight changes in your daily routine just might reduce the severity, or even the onset, of osteoarthritis.

"Unlike rheumatoid arthritis, which often starts earlier and affects small joints like the fingers, osteoarthritis affects the large joints," says Dr. David Volgas, associate professor of Orthopedic Trauma Surgery at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

"Most commonly, it affects weight-bearing joints, such as the hips and knees."

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, affecting nearly 21 million Americans, according to the Arthritis Foundation.

"Osteoarthritis is what people generally refer to as 'old age' or 'wear and tear' arthritis. This breakdown begins as a person ages and the water content of cartilage decreases, leading to a more brittle and dry cartilage," Volgas says. "It can be likened to a rubber gasket, which, after years of use, begins to become brittle and dry and then starts to crack."

Stiffness usually accompanies prolonged sitting or sleep.

Although osteoarthritis is typically genetic, it's also caused by musculoskeletal defects, obesity, injury, or overuse, researchers say.

So, there may be little you can do to completely prevent it, but you can take steps to lessen its severity or delay its onset, Volgas suggests:

  • Control your weight. A person places three times their body weight across the knee with normal walking, and six to eight times body weight across the knee joint with running or jumping. Consequently, each pound a person loses reduces the impact on the knee by 3 to 6 pounds.
  • Protect your joints to avoid injuries. Joint trauma such as fractures or ligament injuries around the joints may markedly increase the wear and tear on joints, leading to "secondary osteoarthritis."
  • Get moving with exercise. Joint cartilage gets its nutrition from motion of the joint. There is no blood supply to cartilage, which is partly why it doesn't heal well when injured. The joint fluid contains nutrients which bathe the cartilage and are forced into the deeper layers of cartilage by motion. Be aware that high-impact activities such as running and jumping can cause direct trauma to the cartilage.
  • Consider anti-inflammatory medication.  Anti-inflammatory drugs such as naproxen (Aleve) or ibuprofen (Motrin) can alleviate symptoms and potentially slow the progression of arthritis. However, they have side effects, so talk to your physician.
  • Try glucosamine/chondroitin sulfate supplements. These supplements, which can be purchased over the counter, may provide substantial relief of symptoms and may prevent or delay the onset of osteoarthritis. Always consult with your doctor, however, before taking them.

Always be wary of herbal remedy claims, Volgas advises. "There are numerous herbal remedies for osteoarthritis, but none which have been scientifically proven," despite Internet claims to the contrary, he says.

Some herbal remedies may have significant drug interactions with prescription medicines, he adds.

Always tell your doctor about any herbal remedy you are considering taking.

Bethanne Black, of Atlanta, is a freelance journalist who specializes in health care.