Osteoarthritis cannot be cured, but treatment can ease your symptoms and prevent them from affecting your everyday life. The main treatments do not involve medication.
Treatment for osteoarthritis aims to:
- relieve pain
- reduce disability
- provide support to help you live as active a life as possible
The main treatment options for osteoarthritis do not involve medication. They are:
- access to the right information
- exercise to improve your fitness and strengthen your muscles
- weight loss, if you are overweight
If your osteoarthritis is mild or moderate, you may not need any other treatment. Your GP can give you advice about managing your symptoms by making changes to your lifestyle. These may be enough to keep the condition under control.
Osteoarthritis can be managed by improving your general health. Your doctor may recommend ways you can help yourself, such as taking regular exercise and losing weight.
Exercise is the most important treatment for people with osteoarthritis, whatever your age or level of fitness. Your physical activity should include a combination of exercises to strengthen your muscles and exercises to improve your general fitness.
If osteoarthritis causes you pain and stiffness, you may think exercise will make your symptoms worse. But usually, regular exercise that keeps you active and mobile and builds up muscle, thereby strengthening the joints, will improve symptoms. Exercise is also good for relieving stress, losing weight and improving your posture, all of which will ease symptoms.
To see more about exercise and arthritis see our ‘Keeping Active’ page.
Being overweight or obese makes osteoarthritis worse. Extra weight puts more strain on damaged joints, which have a reduced ability to repair themselves. Joints in the lower limbs, which carry your weight, are under particular stress if you are overweight or obese.
If you are overweight, try to lose weight by doing more physical activity and eating a healthier diet. Discuss any new exercise plan with your GP or physiotherapist before you start. Your GP and practice nurse can also advise about how to lose weight slowly and safely.
To see more about eating healthily please see our ‘Eat for Health’ page.
Other treat options
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) uses a machine that may help ease the pain caused by your osteoarthritis. It works by numbing the nerve endings in your spinal cord which control pain, so you can no longer feel it.
Treatment with TENS is usually arranged by a physiotherapist. Small electrical pads (electrodes) are applied to the skin over your affected joint. These deliver small pulses of electricity from the TENS machine. Your physiotherapist can advise on the strength of the pulses and how long your treatment lasts.
Hot or cold packs
Applying hot or cold packs (sometimes called thermotherapy or cryotherapy) to the joints can relieve the pain and symptoms of osteoarthritis in some people. A hot-water bottle filled with either hot or cold water and applied to the affected area can be very effective in reducing pain. Special hot and cold packs that can either be cooled in the freezer or heated in a microwave are also available, and work in a similar way.
Not using your joints can cause your muscles to waste and may increase stiffness caused by osteoarthritis. Manual therapy is a treatment provided by a physiotherapist. It uses stretching techniques to keep your joints supple and flexible.
If your osteoarthritis causes mobility problems or if performing everyday tasks is difficult, several devices could help. Your GP may refer you to a physiotherapist or an occupational therapist for specialist help and advice.
If you have osteoarthritis in your lower limbs, such as your hips, knees or feet, your physiotherapist or occupational therapist may suggest special footwear or insoles for your shoes. Footwear with shock-absorbing soles can help relieve some of the pressure on the joints of your legs as you walk. Special insoles may help spread your weight more evenly. Leg braces and supports also work in the same way.
If you have osteoarthritis in your hip or knee that affects your mobility, you may need to use a walking aid, such as a stick or cane. Hold it on the opposite side of your body to your affected leg so that it takes some of your weight.
A splint (a piece of rigid material used to provide support to a joint or bone) can also be useful if you need to rest a painful joint. Your physiotherapist can provide you with a splint and give you advice on how to use it correctly.
If your hands are affected by osteoarthritis, you may also need assistance with hand-operated tasks, such as turning on a tap. Special devices, such as tap turners, can make performing these tasks far more manageable. Your occupational therapist can give you help and advice about using these devices in your home or workplace.
Surgery for osteoarthritis is only needed in a small number of cases. It can sometimes be helpful for osteoarthritis that affects your hips, knees or joints, particularly those at the base of your thumb. Your GP may suggest surgery if other treatments have not been effective, or if one of your joints is severely damaged.
If you may need surgery for osteoarthritis, your GP will refer you to an orthopaedic surgeon.
Having surgery for osteoarthritis may greatly improve your symptoms, mobility and quality of life. However, surgery cannot be guaranteed to get rid of your symptoms altogether, and you may still experience pain and stiffness due to your condition.
There are several different types of surgery for osteoarthritis. You may have surgery to smooth the surfaces of your joints or restore cartilage (arthroscopy). Or you may have surgery to replace your whole joint, the weight-bearing surface (resurfacing), or to fuse it into position.
Joint replacement therapy, also known as an arthroplasty, is most commonly carried out to replace hip and knee joints.
During an arthroplasty, your surgeon will remove your affected joint and replace it with an artificial joint (prosthesis) made of special plastics and metal. An artificial joint can last for up to 20 years. However, it may eventually need to be replaced.
There is also a newer type of joint replacement surgery called resurfacing. This uses only metal components and may be more suitable for younger patients. Your surgeon will discuss with you the type of surgery that would be best.
If joint replacement is not suitable for you, your surgeon may suggest an operation known as an arthrodesis, which fuses your joint in a permanent position. This means that your joint will be stronger and much less painful, although you will no longer be able to move it.
If you have osteoarthritis in your knees but you are too young for knee replacement surgery (arthroplasty), you may be able to have an operation called an osteotomy. This involves your surgeon adding or removing a small section of bone either above or below your knee joint.
This helps realign your knee so your weight is no longer focused on the damaged part of your knee. An osteotomy can relieve your symptoms of osteoarthritis, although you may still need knee replacement surgery eventually.
To see more information about surgery please see our ‘Surgery’ page.