When achy joints become too much, find the best treatment for you.
Joints are points in the body where two or more bones meet. We use our joints every time we walk across a room, pick up the remote control, fold laundry, type an email, cook a meal, pick up our children… basically every task that requires physical activity! With so much daily use, it’s easy to take joints for granted. That is, until they start to cause physical pain, which they do for more than 50 million Americans.
By Julianne Hale
Called arthritis or arthralgia, joint pain can range from mild to severe. Treatments will always depend on severity; some sufferers will take pain pills whereas others may need to use wheelchairs, walkers, or braces. Some of the most common joint pain occurs in the major areas of the body—the knees, feet, ankles, fingers, shoulders, and hips — but pain can happen anywhere that two or more bones meet. Regardless of the location or degree, joint pain is a serious matter for many, impacting their mobility and quality of life.
There are a variety of injuries and conditions that can cause joint pain, including rheumatoid arthritis, bursitis, tendinitis, and gout. Fortunately, there are also a wide range of treatment options to provide relief. Once you know what is causing your joint pain, your doctor can assist you with finding the treatment you need.
To Go to the Doctor, or to Treat at Home? That is the Question
We tend to think of arthritis as a minor condition that we treat with an occasional Advil and rest. This misconception can be costly. A general term for joint pain, arthritis includes more than 100 diseases and conditions, some of which are quite serious. In some cases, an early diagnosis and treatment can actually prevent permanent damage, which is why it’s critical to seek care when your symptoms worsen or will not go away. If, for example, you have joint pain that lasts more than three days or have recurring joint pain several times in the same month, you should make an appointment with your doctor to determine the cause.
According to Dr. William Hartley, a total joint replacement and arthroscopy specialist with Center for Sports Medicine and Orthopaedics, you should see a doctor any time pain is interfering with quality of life. “I think it’s human nature not to want to deal with a problem, and I think patients have a fear that someone will tell them they need surgery, but there are a lot of other options,” Dr. Hartley says. If your joint pain is caused by an injury, symptoms such as joint deformity, the inability to use the joint, intense pain, and sudden swelling serve as red flags to let you know that you need to seek immediate care.
How Do You Spell R-E-L-I-E-F?
Whether you’re having trouble with mild stiffness during the morning hours or debilitating pain all day long, joint pain impacts your quality of life and needs to be addressed with a relief strategy. Here are some of the most common pain treatment options:
When it comes to medications, there are a variety of drugs available for treating joint pain, including prescription and over-the-counter pills, patches, injections, infusions, and topical creams and ointments.
“Anti-inflammatory medications are the mainstay of treatment for arthritic conditions,” says Dr. Benji Miller, an orthopedic surgeon with Parkridge Health System & Chattanooga Bone & Joint Surgeons. “Many over the counter medications such as Advil, Aleve, and even
Tylenol can help manage pain and arthritis. Prescription anti-inflammatories can be prescribed by your doctor if these over-the-counter medications do not relieve pain sufficiently.” In addition, topical treatments can be applied directly to the skin to relieve localized pain.
In cases of intense pain, doctors may inject medication directly into the affected group of nerves. This is known as a nerve block, which temporarily removes pain and sensation from the affected area. Corticosteroids are prescription drugs that can be used topically or via pill in order to reduce inflammation. Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) are a relatively new drug used to suppress the immune system in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and psoriatic arthritis. This class of drugs also includes a new, targeted drug called biologics, which stops the body from producing certain inflammatory substances.
Occupational & Physical Therapy
Occupational and physical therapy can go a long way toward reducing the impact and degree of pain that you experience. Occupational therapists help patients by teaching them how to modify their home and work environments to reduce the strain on the joints. They can also recommend devices to assist with the daily tasks of living such as driving, dressing, bathing, housekeeping, and other tasks.
Physical therapists create exercises to increase the range of motion in the joints, strengthen the muscles, and improve the endurance in patients with arthritis. Physical therapists use their expertise to make sure that patients retain use of their joints, restore some use that has been lost, maintain their fitness level, and continue to live a fulfilling life.
Maintaining the range of motion in your joints and keeping your muscles strong is your best line of defense for maintaining quality of life. Consult your physical therapist for appropriate exercises for you or for any type of devices that might assist you in reducing joint pain.
Expert Tip: Exercising in the water is often recommended for people with joint pain. Aquatic exercise builds strength and range of motion without putting strain on the joints.
Many doctors recommend applying ice packs or heating pads to relieve pain locally and taking advantage of a warm bath to relax muscles before exercising. If you plan on having a joint replacement surgery, make sure to stick to a preoperative exercise plan to make your recovery as quick and painless as possible. Common sense measures can also help keep joint pain at bay. Try to stay at a healthy weight to minimize impact on the weight bearing joints in the body. Allow yourself time to rest, and be aware of your body and respect its boundaries. If you’re in pain, do your body a favor and take a break.
If joint pain continues to significantly limit everyday activities and all other modalities fail, it might be time to look into surgery for specific joints. “There are a number of surgical options for persistent symptomatic arthritis in the hand, wrist, and elbow,” says Dr. Marshall Jemison, a reconstructive hand surgeon at Hayes Hand Center/The Plastic Surgery Group. “The procedures vary in complexity, and the best one for you will depend on your type of arthritis and the amount of deformity. A number of joint replacement (implant) options are available for the hand and arm. Other surgical options include stabilizing the joints with fusion and using the patient’s spare tendons to replace the joint surface and ligaments.”
While the odds are high that you’ll experience joint pain at some point in your life, you don’t need to live in fear. With the wide array of treatment options and outstanding medical professionals in the Tennessee Valley, arthritis doesn’t have to be an impassable road block that keeps you from participating in life. Rather, it can be a minor bump in the road. With a little bit of attention and care, you’ll be back in the driver’s seat and on the way to your next adventure.