“Oh, my aching joints!” There’s a reason why we hear this so often. Osteoarthritis, also known as OA, is the most common musculoskeletal disease in the world and a prevalent factor in work absences, temporary or permanent disability, hospital admissions and use of pain management drugs. While OA can develop in any joint, the knees and hips are most commonly affected. Naturopathic provider Jacob Wolf, ND, LAc, Dipl OM, explains the basics of OA and treatment options:
Causes and symptoms of OA
OA develops in response to chronic inflammation in which there is progressive deterioration of the cartilage and narrowing of the joint space. The mechanical function of the entire joint, including adjacent bone and soft tissue (ligaments, muscles and tendons), can be impacted. Factors that cause OA can include:
- Joint injury
- Overuse related to sports, physical activity or work
- Age (being over age 50)
- Lack of exercise or too much exercise
- Hormonal changes related to menopause
Symptoms of OA include pain, stiffness and swelling in the joint. There may also be stiffness or cramping in the neighboring muscles.
The main objective of treatment is symptom management – reducing pain and underlying inflammation – and preventing further deterioration of the joint. It has been commonly thought that OA is irreversible; however, advances in orthopedic treatments, regenerative medicine, nutritional science, physical therapy and related fields show that some people can improve joint function and experience a reduction in pain.
Treatments vary by individual and often a combination of treatments is used. Here are a few:
Contrast hydrotherapy: Alternating hot and cold-pack treatments or alternating soaking in warm and cool-water baths can reduce stiffness, inflammation and pain. Soaking can also be done in mineral-infused water (also known as balneotherapy). Another form of contrast hydrotherapy involves applying a warm compress to the joint for five minutes and then covering it with a thin, cold towel for ten minutes.
Acupuncture: Acupuncture has been shown to help a wide variety of painful conditions including OA. With acupuncture, small needles are used to help reduce pain and inflammation in the joint. While many people are nervous about needles, the treatment is usually very relaxing with minimal discomfort.
Muscle strengthening: Strengthening the muscles and connective tissue around the affected joint helps improve strength and range of motion, reduces pain and swelling and can prevent further breakdown of the cartilage. An exercise program may include yoga, tai chi or strength training and should be designed by a physician or physical therapist that is knowledgeable about OA and your personal goals.
Lifestyle changes: If you smoke, focus on reducing smoking and ultimately quitting to help reduce the inflammatory load in your body. Eat a healthy diet consisting of whole grains, healthy fats, lean meat, poultry and fish and plenty of fresh fruits and veggies. Cut down on sugar too, as it contributes to inflammation.
Nutritional supplements: Glucosamine, a compound found in certain marine animals (there is also a vegan form), is one of the most frequently used supplements worldwide due to its cartilage protective properties. Glucosamine can help delay joint deterioration and narrowing. Always check with a naturopathic provider before taking nutritional supplements.
Conventional medicine for OA: Orthopedic interventions can include the use of anti-inflammatory medications, muscle relaxants or pain medicine, some of which may cause unwanted side effects. Joint lubrication injections of cortisone are common. Knee and hip joint replacement surgery can be life-changing for people who have tried other approaches, including holistic treatments, and are still suffering.
If you’re interested in natural approaches to managing OA, work with your naturopathic practitioner to determine the best approach for you. Consult with Lake Health’s Integrative Medicine team today by calling 440-255-5508.