Even after a diagnosis of osteoarthritis, individuals can continue to lead a full and active life.
In addition to various self-treatments such as exercise and medical treatments such as injections into a joint, people can take other measures to live with osteoarthritis. These measures include:
- Joint protection
- Assistive devices
- Help from health care professionals
- Developing a self-management program
By learning about osteoarthritis and educating oneself about its treatment, you can improve your lifestyle and have a new sense of purpose. Your health care provider is a helpful resource.
Some individuals explore other treatments, including unproven "remedies." While some of these options are safe, others can cause harm. It's prudent to explore the facts and risks before trying such options.
Joint protection begins with learning new ways to use the arthritic joint. Joint stress and strain can be limited by following a few simple rules.
For the upper body joints:
- Avoid overburdening small and weaker joints by using larger joints to carry heavy things. For example, carry shopping bags using the forearms or palms of the hands, rather than the fingers.
- Avoid neck strain by placing reading material or work objects at eye level. Don't look up or down for long periods of time.
- Relieve finger joint strain by using extra-thick pens when writing.
- Wear thick gloves to reduce joint strain when a tight grip is needed to hold a tool, heavy pot, or other object.
- Increase leverage by using long-handled tools and reaching devices when performing activities such as gardening, housework, and retrieving objects from high places.
For the lower body joints:
- Bend at the knees and straighten the legs (while keeping the back straight) to lift objects from the ground if back pain is a problem.
- Get up from a chair by sliding forward to the chair's edge, keeping the feet flat on the floor, and using the palms of the hands to push against the chair's arms or seat. Stand up by straightening the hips and knee. Use higher seats rather than deep, soft sofas.
- Never squat or kneel, as these positions strain the hips and knees.
- Maintain good posture to avoid putting stress on the joints.
- Wear well-cushioned athletic shoes with good arch support whenever possible. If dress shoes must be worn, women should choose styles with heels that are no higher than one inch. Men should choose lace-up rather than slip-on styles, which provide less support.
- Use support devices (cane, walker) if necessary, to reduce strain on the hips and knees when walking. A cane should be held in the opposite hand to the hip or knee affected.
Assistive devices can help people with arthritis to perform everyday tasks. Such devices include:
- Canes, walkers, and other walking aids
- Cervical collars
- Special pillows
- Back braces and supports
- Jar openers
- Faucet turners
- Door knob turners
- Key turners
- Writing devices
- Reaching devices
- Shoe inserts
- Bathroom equipment (such as raised toilet seats, handrails by toilet and shower)
Many of these devices -- such as splints used to rest sore joints -- should be prescribed by a physician and fitted by an expert. (NOTE: The products above are listed for informational purposes only. Endorsement is not implied.)
Help from healthcare professionals
In addition to family physicians, internists, and rheumatologists (specialists in connective tissue disorders), many other healthcare professionals are available to help arthritis sufferers who have difficulties performing everyday activities. Such individuals are, in fact, essential to a comprehensive arthritis treatment plan. They include:
- Physical therapists and physiatrists
- Occupational therapists
- Psychiatrists and psychologists
- Social workers
Physical therapists and nurses often have solutions for problems with daily activities (walking, dressing, climbing stairs, bathing), and they can offer ways to cope with disability. In addition, they can provide instruction about joint protection and suggest appropriate aids and assistive devices protection.
Occupational therapists are able to assess the home and recommend changes that can make it safer, more comfortable, and easier to get around.
Psychiatrist, psychologists, and social workers can help individuals to cope with stress, and they can advise both patients and families about the emotional adjustments needed for the new circumstances presented by arthritis.
Developing a self-management program
Self-management is perhaps the most significant factor in controlling osteoarthritis. A person who anticipates problems and makes lifestyle changes is better able to achieve control. In addition, sharing information with a physician will help to thwart potential difficulties and make the most of available treatments.
Arthritis education is key. Many programs are available through the Arthritis Foundation and other resources. For the best results, it is advisable to learn:
- Symptom management skills to lessen pain by exercising, using heat or cold, or other strategies.
- Coping skills to help contend with the arthritis-related changes, including changes in appearance, mood, or levels of pain and stress.
- Activity planning, so that if symptoms are problematic, activities are planned for the best times or days.
Another simple but effective tool is a personal journal. A small book or log can be used to record both good and bad responses to treatment. The journal can be brought to a physician and reviewed. In this way, the person and his or her physician can both cooperate in the treatment program and overcome any problems that may arise.
Ariel D. Teitel, MD, MBA, Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Rheumatology, NYU Langone Medical Center. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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