Diagnosis of Osteoarthritis  

There is no single test for osteoarthritis. Diagnosing the condition may include the following:

  • Providing to a doctor a medical history that includes your symptoms, any other medical problems you and your close family members have, and any medications you are taking.
  • Having a physical exam to check your general health, reflexes, and problem joints.
  • Having images taken of your joint using:
    • X-rays, which can show loss of joint space, bone damage, bone remodeling, and bone spurs. Early joint damage does not usually appear on x-rays.
    • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which can show damage to soft tissues in and around the joint. Generally, MRI helps health care providers evaluate a joint that is locking or giving out.
  • Having blood tests to rule out other causes for symptoms.
  • Taking joint fluid samples to look for other causes of joint pain, such as infection or gout.

Treatment of Osteoarthritis

The goals of your treatment for osteoarthritis include:

  • Reducing pain and other symptoms.
  • Improving joint function.
  • Stopping the disease from progressing.
  • Maintaining a health-related quality of life to help prevent disability.

Treating osteoarthritis usually begins with:

  • Learning about osteoarthritis. Your doctor may recommend classes that you can attend or online programs you can join.
  • Exercising, which can reduce joint pain and stiffness and increase flexibility, muscle strength, and endurance. Remember to start any exercise program slowly and take the time to adjust to the new level of activity. You should speak to your doctor or physical therapist about a safe, well-rounded exercise program, which may include:
    • Range-of-motion and stretching activities to keep your joints limber.
    • Strengthening exercises performed with weights or exercise bands to strengthen muscles that support joints affected by arthritis.
    • Exercises in the water to help lower the stress on the joints while exercising.
    • Balance and agility exercises to help you maintain daily living skills.
    • Low-impact activities that give you a moderate level of activity without putting stress on the joints. These may include walking, cycling, swimming, tai chi, water aerobics, or a low-impact aerobics class.
  • Managing your weight can help reduce the stress on joints. In addition, if you are overweight or obese, losing weight can help to reduce pain, prevent more injury, and increase mobility in the joints. This can be especially helpful for weight-bearing joints such as your knees or hips.
  • Using braces or orthotics that your doctor prescribes and that are fitted by a health care professional may be helpful to stabilize a joint affected by osteoarthritis.

Some people may need medications to help manage the symptoms of osteoarthritis, including:

  • Oral pain relievers.
  • Oral anti-inflammatory medications to treat pain and inflammation.
  • Topical creams, rubs, or sprays that you apply to the skin over sore joints to relieve pain.
  • Corticosteroids, strong inflammation-fighting drugs that are usually injected into the joint to temporarily relieve pain. Because they are potent drugs, your doctor will determine how many injections you should receive and how often to achieve the desired benefit.
  • Hyaluronic acid substitutes (viscosupplements), which are injected into the knee to replace a normal component of the joint involved in lubrication and nutrition are sometimes recommended for knee osteoarthritis.
  • Selective serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors that you take orally to help control chronic (long-term) pain.

If other treatments are not helping and if the joint damage is extensive, some people may have surgery. When considering surgery, many factors may determine if it is the right option, including your age, pain intensity, the degree to which arthritis interferes with your lifestyle, level of disability, and occupation. Surgeries may include one or more of the following:

  • Osteotomy: Surgical removal of a piece of bone.
  • Partial or total joint replacement surgery: Removal of part of all of the damaged joint and replacing it with a new joint made of plastic, metal, or ceramic.

Other therapies such as massage can increase blood flow and bring warmth to the area. Some research shows that acupuncture may help relieve osteoarthritis pain. Doctors believe that the needles stimulate the release of natural, pain-relieving chemicals produced by the nervous system. Before using other therapies, talk to your doctor about the best options for your treatment.

Who Treats Osteoarthritis?

Treating osteoarthritis requires a team effort involving you and several types of health care professionals. These may include:

  • Rheumatologists, who specialize in arthritis and other diseases of the bones, joints, and muscles.
  • Primary care doctors, such as a family physician or internal medicine specialist, who coordinates care between the different health providers and treats other problems as they arise.
  • Orthopaedic surgeons, who specialize in treatment and surgery for bone and joint diseases.
  • Physical therapists, who help improve joint function.
  • Occupational therapists, who teach ways to protect joints, minimize pain, perform activities of daily living, and conserve energy.
  • Dietitians, who teach about nutrition and maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Nurse educators, who help you understand your condition and help start treatment plans.
  • Physiatrists (physical, medicine, and rehabilitation specialists), who supervise exercise programs.
  • Psychologists or social workers, who help with psychosocial challenges caused by medical conditions.
  • Chiropractors, who focus treatment on the relationship between the body's structure, mainly the spine, and its functioning.

Living With Osteoarthritis

There are many things you can do to help you live with osteoarthritis, including:

  • Heat and cold therapies can reduce joint pain. Heat therapy increases blood flow, tolerance for pain, and flexibility. Cold therapy numbs the nerves around the joint to reduce pain and may relieve inflammation.
  • Support or assistive devices such as a cane or walker can help you move around safely, provide stability, and lower pain. If you have arthritis in your hands, you may find it helpful to use devices to help you grip, such as jar openers.
  • Try to avoid repetitive motions, such as frequent bending.
  • Shoe inserts or braces can help support your joint and help lower pain and pressure on the area. This can be helpful when you stand or walk.
  • Make appointments to see your health care provider. This allows you to participate in your treatment and talk about your symptoms. Some people find it helpful to join a class that provides information on osteoarthritis and how to manage the symptoms to allow you to live an active lifestyle.
  • Support groups, both online and in your community, can help you cope and offer tips on how to emotionally manage having the disease and live a healthy lifestyle.