Joints in the body function like a well-oiled machine, allowing our body to move and bend with ease. However, with time, that machine can begin to wear down, causing joints to malfunction due to conditions like osteoarthritis.

“Osteoarthritis is a painful condition caused by a gradual loss of cartilage in the joints,” says rheumatologist Dr. Evelyn Sutton, explaining that cartilage is the greasy surface that caps the ends of the bones that allows two bones to move relative to one another with little friction. As the cushion of cartilage wears away, patients experience joint pain, stiffness, and swelling.

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, affecting one in 10 Canadian adults, according to The Arthritis Society, and as the population ages, the prevalence of this degenerative disease is expected to increase.

A big pain

For patients with osteoarthritis, everyday tasks like walking and standing can be painful. If a patient has osteoarthritis in their hips, Sutton explains, simply getting up from the dinner table or after going to the bathroom can be challenging.
“It’s living with the pain that’s a big problem for a lot of patients,” says Sutton.

Within a generation, researchers predict there will be a new diagnosis of osteoarthritis in Canada every 60 seconds. According to research conducted by The Arthritis Society, this will result in 30 percent of the labour force having difficulty working due to osteoarthritis.

Get moving 

Osteoarthritis can make it difficult and painful to move, but inactivity can actually worsen a patient’s condition.

“It can be a vicious circle because patients can’t do as much exercise since they’re in pain so they gain more weight, as they gain more weight it accelerates their arthritis,” says Sutton.

There is no way to reverse the damage of osteoarthritis, but weight loss and strengthening the muscles around the damaged joint have been shown to slow the progression of the disease. 

However, Sutton emphasizes that not all exercises will benefit osteoarthritis.

“If you’ve got arthritis in your knees and hips, pounding repetitive sports like running are not a good idea,” she says, adding that activities like aqua aerobics are good for giving patients a full range of motion without being tough on their joints.

“Pick an exercise that’s appropriate and also something that’s enjoyable, because you won’t do something if you don’t enjoy it,” says Sutton.

Managing pain

While no medication has been shown to slow the progression of osteoarthritis, painkillers such as acetaminophen or anti-inflammatories (e.g. ibuprofen) are often recommended for patients to help manage their symptoms. 

“By helping to relieve the pain of osteoarthritis, patients can have improved quality of life,” says chronic pain specialist Dr. Michael Zahavi. “As well, they may be able to participate in exercise which not only encourages mental wellness but also may slow the progression of disability due to osteoarthritis.”

For many patients, acetaminophen, when taken at the correct dosage, can effectively relieve the pain associated with osteoarthritis without causing additional issues, such as gastrointestinal or blood pressure complications. “There are many patients who report significant benefit with the regular use of acetaminophen for osteoarthritis and for this reason it is a first line treatment,” says Zahavi. “In seniors, sometimes this benefit can be the difference between independent and dependent living.”

Doctor’s orders

Though pain medications are available without a prescription, both Sutton and Zahavi agree that osteoarthritis patients or those with joint pain symptoms should see their health care professional before taking any medications. 

“Any patient regularly taking any medication whether prescribed or over-the-counter should discuss the use with their doctor, especially if used in conjunction with other prescribed or non-prescribed medications,” says Zahavi.