25 Ways To Prevent Osteoarthritis
The stiffness, pain, and joint deterioration that accompany osteoarthritis have undoubtedly stood the test of time: Researchers have found evidence of the condition in the fossilized remains of 85-million-year-old dinosaurs. And if you’re one of the 70 million Americans afflicted with the painful condition, you know all too well how that dinosaur felt. Some of the osteoarthritis common in America is part of the inevitable wear and tear on your joints. As you get older, the cartilage that cushions your bones wears down over time, and stiffness and pain may result. Other factors are at work besides aging, however. Genetics seems to predispose some people to arthritis more than others. And traumatic injuries can speed up the development of arthritis.
Whatever is behind your arthritis pain, home remedies can play a significant role in reducing it, or even preventing osteoarthritis from occurring in the first place. Read on to see how these osteoarthritis treatment methods can help with the pain.
Get To Your Ideal Weight
“Being overweight is like carrying around heavy luggage,” says Neal Barnard, MD. “It hurts the knees, hips—literally every joint in the body. The basic rule of thumb is that every extra 10 pounds increases the risk of osteoarthritis in the knees by 30%.” Another way to look at it, explains Kevin Stone, MD, is that it’s not just extra weight, but also extra pressure. “Whatever your body weight is, a force of three to five times that weight is bearing down on your knee joints,” he says. However, it’s more than just your knees and hips that are at risk. “It turns out that thinner people are also less likely to develop arthritis in their hands,” says Barnard. That just gives you one more reason to keep that weight off. (Take this 30-second test to find out if your weight is healthy.)
Eat For The Long Haul
While specific foods seem to play a role in rheumatoid arthritis, the relationship is less clear when it comes to osteoarthritis. That’s why the general dietary advice here is to focus on foods that will help you maintain a healthy weight. “Low-fat, high-fiber foods can help,” says Barnard. “That means vegetables, fruits, beans, and whole grains. These foods typically cause weight loss, which takes the weight off your knees and hips.” The Arthritis Foundation’s suggestions for a proper diet are simple: Strive for balance and eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, and grains; take in only moderate amounts of sugar, salt, and alcohol; and limit your consumption of fat and cholesterol. The foundation also advises taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement to get your daily requirements, especially of calcium.
Drink Lots Of Water
“Hydration helps prevent arthritis,” says Michael Loes, MD. Your joints need lubrication to move smoothly, just like a well-oiled machine. Loes recommends drinking 9 to 12 eight-ounce glasses of water every day to prevent osteoarthritis pain. If you drink lots of coffee or other caffeinated beverages, which act as diuretics and flush water out of your body, down even more water. (Bored with plain water? Try one of these 25 sassy recipes.)
Whether it’s walking, riding a stationary bike, or swimming, daily aerobic exercise can help reduce stiffness and pain, preserving or improving the health of your bones and joints. If you’re just getting started, Barnard recommends a 30-minute walk 3 times a week.
Work In Some Resistance Training
Just as aerobic exercise is important, a weekly weight-training regimen is key to building strength in your muscles, bones, and joints. If your muscles aren’t strong, joints tend to slip out of alignment, causing more pain for you. If you have osteoarthritis, talk to a physical therapist before beginning a weight-training regimen. (Over 50? These are the 10 best strength-training moves for you.)
The third critical aspect of your workout routine is stretching. It’s important for maintaining the strength and agility of your joints. “Stretching may not prevent the arthritis, but it will likely help to reduce its impact on your function by keeping you looser and less subject to muscle spasm,” says Theodore R. Fields, MD. Start with gentle exercises. These include simply rotating your arms, legs, and trunk slowly in as full a range of motion as possible without pain. Loes recommends a Thera-Band stretcher, a small piece of elastic band that offers resistance as you stretch various body parts. Similar products are available online and in sporting goods stores.
Start Slowly And Gently
Overexertion can make osteoarthritis pain worse. “If your exercise causes pain that lasts for more than a half hour after you are finished, you probably did too much. Cut back, then work up to an increased amount,” says Loes. If you’re unsure of your limitations, rely on the trusted guidance of your doctor, who can diagnose your physical limitations, and your physical therapist, who can create a special routine to keep you sufficiently challenged within those limits.
Exercise After A Hot Shower
The hot water loosens you up, says Fields, so you’re less likely to experience pain while or after exercising.
Buy Good Shoes
Walking is a great aerobic exercise to reduce your arthritis pain. If you make walking a routine, Loes recommends investing in a good pair of walking shoes. Look for lightweight shoes made of breathable material, comfortable at the ball of your foot, and that have good arch support and a padded heel. (Here’s our picks for the best sneakers.)
Exercise On A Soft, Flat Surface
A surface that gives under each step minimizes jarring to your joints and hurtful steps that could irritate your arthritis. A smooth, grassy field or a vulcanized rubber running track, like the one at your local high school, are excellent choices.
Make Friends With Water
“In retirement communities, it’s not the golfers who are the healthiest,” says Loes, “it’s the swimmers.” Our experts agree that swimming is the top low-impact, aerobic exercises for arthritis. Loes recommends the backstroke and sidestroke to condition the paraspinal muscles, those tiny nerve-rich muscles surrounding the spine. Strengthening these muscles will help ease back pain and improve mobility. Water aerobics is also a good choice to relieve and reduce arthritis pain.
Be Careful About Running
The good news is that studies show running doesn’t cause osteoarthritis, says Fields. The bad news is that, “in people predisposed to getting osteoarthritis, or in those with knees or ankles that are not well aligned, running can contribute to osteoarthritis,” he says. “If a joint such as the knee is injured, then subsequent running, especially on a hard surface, can cause it to progress.”
Use Epsom Salts
Added to bathwater, these magnesium sulfate crystals provide extra-soothing comfort for arthritis pain because they help draw out carbon—one of the waste products of your body—through your skin.
Stand Up Straight
Bad posture puts a lot of pressure on your joints, causing wear and tear on your bones and cartilage—just as poor alignment in your car causes tires to wear unevenly. It also can cause a lot of extra pain for people with arthritis, says Alan Lichtbroun, MD. So stand up straight now; it could save your knees and hips in the long run.
Get Hot Or Cold
If you feel arthritis pain flaring, Fields recommends heat or ice to quell the burning. Use ice for sudden flare-ups, chronic pain, or when your joints are inflamed. And reserve the heat treatment—like a hot bath, heating pad, or a hot pack wrapped in a towel—for when you feel sore and achy.
Rely On Acetaminophen
Safe and effective, acetaminophen taken on a daily basis is the standard recommendation for minor arthritis pain. “Tylenol is the mainstay of operation,” says Justus Fiechtner, MD. “It doesn’t work for everybody, obviously, but it seems to work well if you don’t take too much of it.”
“The problem with taking many over-the-counter pain relievers every day is that they increase your risk of developing stomach ulcers,” says Fiechtner. He recommends acetaminophen because, unlike aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen (Aleve), which can all cause ulcers, acetaminophen is not associated with stomach problems.
Experiment With Glucosamine And Chondroitin Sulfate
You often see the medical community turn a skeptical eye when it comes to supplements. But glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate have worked so well in the treatment of arthritis time and again that critics have now accepted them as a pain treatment for arthritis. “There are enough positive studies and evidence for the safety of glucosamine and chondroitin that someone with osteoarthritis should give it a try,” says Fields. For those who want to test out glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate, Fields recommends the dosage in the guidelines of the National Institutes of Health: 500 milligrams of glucosamine and 400 milligrams of chondroitin sulfate tablets three times daily for 2 months, and then twice daily after that. “After 3 months, this supplement can be stopped if no benefit is seen,” says Fields.
Love Your Joints With Ginger
Some studies indicate that this amazing root blocks inflammation as well as anti-inflammatory drugs do (and without side effects). Steep a few slivers of fresh ginger in a tea ball in 1 cup of freshly boiled water for 10 minutes. Let it cool to sipping temperature and drink up.
Take A Daily Supplement
Try a daily dose of vitamin C to preserve the health of your collagen and connective tissue. Take at least 100 milligrams a day.
Add In Vitamin E
Though vitamin E has gotten some bad press lately, Barnard stands behind it as a good treatment for alleviating osteoarthritis pain. “A typical dosage regimen is 200 IU each day, or 100 IU if you have high blood pressure,” he says.
Mix In Magnesium
In addition to these other nutrients, Loes recommends 60 milligrams of magnesium a day. “Aside from just helping bones, magnesium helps to ward off cramps and improves sleep,” he says.
Don’t Forget Vitamin D
A deficiency of vitamin D was once thought to lead directly to osteoarthritis. While additional studies have not shown this to be the case, the vitamin is still critical for preserving overall muscle strength, which is why Fields recommends 800 IU daily.
Add Omega-3s To Your Regime
The anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3 fatty acids seem to play a role in reducing arthritis pain, explains Barnard. Add flaxseeds or flax oil to your diet. Try to get 2 teaspoons every day for a healthy dose of omega-3s.
Mix Them With Omega-6s
“The most recent research seems to indicate that combining omega-3s with an omega-6 fat like borage oil, black currant oil, or evening primrose oil makes it even more effective,” says Barnard. Try to get 1.4 grams of gamma linolenic acid (GLA), the most helpful omega-6.
Find A Capsaicin Cream
Capsaicin, the active constituent of hot peppers, is available over the counter in a topical cream. (The most commonly available brand is Zostrix.) Smearing capsaicin cream over your joints inhibits your nerve cells’ ability to transmit pain impulses, effectively wiping out arthritis pain. You can find capsaicin cream over the counter at drugstores.
When To See A Doctor
If arthritis pain is persistent or if you have 5 to 10 minutes or more of significant morning stiffness, see your doctor, advises Fields. Also see your doctor if you have loss of motion or swelling in a joint or if the pain stops you from doing activities you find important. Talk to your doctor if acetaminophen or another over-the-counter pain reliever doesn’t help with the pain, says Fiechtner.
Panel Of Advisors
Neal Barnard, MD, is the president of the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C., and author of Foods That Fight Pain.
Justus Fiechtner, MD, is a clinical professor of osteopathic manipulative medicine at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine in East Lansing.
Theodore R. Fields, MD, is a rheumatologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, an associate professor of clinical medicine at the Weill College of Medicine of Cornell University, and clinical director of the H.S.S. Gosden Robinson Early Arthritis Center.
Alan Lichtbroun, MD, specializes in rheumatology and connective tissue research at the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in East Brunswick, New Jersey.
Michael Loes, MD, is director of the Arizona Pain Institute in Phoenix and author of The Healing Response.
Kevin Stone, MD, is an orthopedic surgeon at the Stone Clinic in San Francisco.