Osteoarthritis: 7 Things Doctors Want You to Know

  • Doctor with hand on patients shoulder
    What Doctors Can Do for Osteoarthritis
    Osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, is due to wear and tear on your joints. It can lead to pain, stiffness and swelling, but there is more to treating osteoarthritis than pain medication. Hear what the experts say about reducing the joint pain and loss of function that often comes with age-related arthritis.

  • Bottle of ibuprofen pills spilling out onto white surface
    1. “There are different ways to manage osteoarthritis pain.”
    Acetaminophen and ibuprofen are common non-prescription medicines you can take for osteoarthritis pain. “If it’s mild to moderate pain that seems to be managed with one or two doses, that’s probably enough. If they’re taking the medication more frequently, or these medicines are not managing their symptoms, they can start with their primary care doctor. If their primary doctor has concerns, a rheumatologist can be helpful in managing arthritis without going straight to an orthopedic surgeon,” says Minna Kohler, MD, a rheumatologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

  • Physical Therapy Exercise for Lower Back
    2. “We treat osteoarthritis depending on which joint is affected.”
    “Every patient is different. For osteoarthritis of the hands, there are things that can be done, such as occupational therapy. If they use their hands a lot they need to learn new techniques to do the same activities. For knee arthritis, physical therapy is important for strengthening the quadriceps and glutes,” says Amanda Sammut, MD, Chief of Rheumatology at New York City Health and Hospitals in Harlem. “Osteoarthritis of the hips, that’s a whole different story, because it tends to be more genetic and about how you’re built, the shape of your hips,” adds Sammut. Medication, steroid injections, and joint replacement are options for severe hip osteoarthritis.

  • Physical therapy
    3. “You may be able to slow the progression of your osteoarthritis.”
    “Everyone gets degenerative joint changes. If you’re able to maintain a healthy weight and diet, that can reduce inflammation that can contribute to progression of arthritis,” says Dr. Kohler. Physical therapy can also help. “I wish everyone could get physical therapy. [It can] condition the musculature that helps support the joints, reducing arthritis symptoms. A lot of people with joint pain are under the impression that if they move too much their arthritis could get worse, when studies have shown that regular exercise is important to improvement in joints, reducing stiffness and continuing to allow for functionality,” says Dr. Kohler.

  • Patient and doctor
    4. “It’s better to call your doctor sooner rather than later if you have osteoarthritis.”
    “It’s never too early to seek help when someone’s having a painful joint. I would prefer that people get help sooner because it can be addressed earlier and that could prevent whatever can be prevented,” says Dr. Sammut. “Sometimes they think their symptoms are just age-related changes, but they may have an underlying inflammatory arthritis or crystal arthritis, such as gout, that might be contributing to more of their symptoms than they may have realized,” adds Dr. Kohler.

  • Pills in hand
    5. “Be aware of potentially serious side effects from common osteoarthritis medications.”
    “It’s important that, when someone takes medicine over the counter [no prescription necessary], they clear it with their doctor. Sometimes those medications could have toxicities, especially the NSAIDs [nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen]. After the age of 60, when most people who have osteoarthritis feel the pain and start taking ibuprofen for instance, they can end up having kidney damage or bleeding from the stomach,” says Dr. Sammut. “We really want patients to be aware that just because something’s over the counter it doesn’t mean that it’s safe,” she adds.

  • closeup of female's hand turning pages
    6. “Not everyone with osteoarthritis will have symptoms or pain that lasts.”
    “It’s very interesting—some patients have knees that look terrible on X-rays and there are areas where the cartilage is completely gone and bones are rubbing against bones but they might not have pain. And other people have a lot of pain and when you do the X-ray they [only] have a little bit of arthritis. Hand arthritis usually happens in women and they’ll notice that their fingers change shape and they’re bothered by what their hands look like, but the pain usually doesn’t persist for more than five years,” Dr. Sammut says.

  • Two surgeons looking at X-ray of artificial hip joint in operating room
    7. “Joint replacements are an option when other osteoarthritis treatments don’t work.”
    “If the patient is having pain that is just not manageable despite everything they’ve done, and they’re not able to function, those are reasons to consider a joint replacement. Occasionally, people will have them around the age of 50, but most people have them in their 60s and 70s. Joint replacement can make a big difference in someone’s life and it’s worth considering when the arthritis gets really severe,” says Dr. Sammut. For many people though, a healthy weight, physical therapy, exercise and medication can help them manage osteoarthritis so they can keep living the life they want.

Osteoarthritis: 7 Things Doctors Want You to Know
  • Dr. Amanda Sammut - Healthgrades - Osteoarthritis: 7 Things Doctors Want You to Know
    Chief of Rheumatology, NYC Health and Hospitals/Harlem, Asst. Clinical Professor of Medicine at Columbia University, College of Physicians and Surgeons
  • Dr. Minna Kohler - Healthgrades - Osteoarthritis: 7 Things Doctors Want You to Know
    Director of the Rheumatology Musculoskeletal Ultrasound Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston

About The Author

Nancy LeBrun is an Emmy- and Peabody award-winning writer and producer who has been writing about health and wellness for more than five years. She is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists and the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
  1. Osteoarthritis. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/osteoarthritis/symptoms-causes/syc-20351925
  2. Osteoarthritis. Arthritis Foundation. https://www.arthritis.org/about-arthritis/types/osteoarthritis/
  3. Osteoarthritis. American College of Rheumatology. https://www.rheumatology.org/I-Am-A/Patient-Caregiver/Diseases-Conditions/Osteoarthritis
  4. Osteoarthritis. American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. https://orthoinfo.org/en/diseases--conditions/osteoarthritis/
  5. Osteoarthritis: Diagnosis and Treatment.American Family Physician. https://www.aafp.org/afp/2012/0101/p49.html 
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Oct 8
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