The word arthritis is a broad term that refers to at least one hundred different conditions. They can be divided into two categories: degenerative arthritis and inflammatory arthritis. Osteoarthritis, for example, belongs to the first category, while rheumatoid arthritis (RA) belongs to the second.
What is osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis is the gradual, irreversible deterioration of cartilage and other tissues of the joints. The cause of osteoarthritis has not been established, but we do know that it is not a normal part of aging. The spine, neck, hips, knees, hands and base of the big toe are most often affected.
There is no cure for osteoarthritis, but early intervention can help prevent it and better control the pain it causes. Exercising and protecting arthritic joints are two important ways to treat osteoarthritis.
Here are a few general principles to follow:
- Maintain a healthy weight, since excess weight increases the pressure on joints.
- Protect your joints through good posture to avoid excessive strain.
- Respect your pain by limiting your activities when it is at its peak.
- Use assistive devices if necessary (braces, splints, orthoses, etc.).
- Start an exercise program under the supervision of a health professional (e.g. physiotherapist, kinesiologist).
The first step in managing joint pain is the use of over-the-counter drugs, such as acetaminophen. The next step is recourse to stronger medications available by prescription. Ask your healthcare professional about your options.
Heat therapy can also be used to ease pain. Simply apply a warm (but not hot) compress, such as a hot water bottle or Magic Bag®, to the painful area for 10 to 15 minutes, every 1 to 2 hours for a few days. A warm bath can also be helpful.
Other medications can be administered directly into the arthritic joint either by injection (corticosteroids, hyaluronate) or can be applied topically (anti-inflammatory agents).
What about natural health products?
Natural health products complement, but never substitute for other joint pain management treatments. The Arthritis Society of Canada lists glucosamine and chondroitin as complementary therapies, but suggests discontinuing their use if no improvement is noted after three months.
Many studies have shown that glucosamine can help alleviate certain symptoms of osteoarthritis. While its mode of action is not fully understood, it is thought to improve joint “lubrication” and help restore damaged cartilage. The recommended dose is 1,500 mg per day, which can be taken in 2 to 3 doses, preferably with food to reduce nausea. People with high blood pressure must make sure they use a sodium-free product.
Remember that it can take from 2 to 6 weeks to work, so a little patience is required.
Arthritis-friendly pill containers
You can always ask your pharmacist for pill containers that are easier to open. However, these are not safe if you have children at home. That’s why they’re not readily available and need to be specifically requested.
Your family pharmacist can be a valuable ally in your pain management efforts. He or she can assess the effectiveness of your drug therapy and recommend drug-free ways to ease your symptoms. Consult your pharmacist for expert advice!