While the underlying process of osteoarthritis (OA) cannot be reversed, the symptoms can often be relieved or significantly improved with self-management strategies (e.g., therapeutic exercise, physical activity, weight management) and medications. Surgery is reserved for severe symptoms that fail to improve with these strategies. The two main goals of osteoarthritis treatment are to control your pain and improve your ability to function.
The following healthcare professionals have advanced training from a university and are registered to practice by their provincial/territorial association:
A physiotherapist (PT) can develop an individualized program designed to help you increase your strength, flexibility, range of motion, and general mobility and exercise tolerance through a wide variety of therapeutic treatments and strategies. These include exercise plans, physical interventions, and relaxation, in addition to advising you on other techniques for reducing pain and increasing your overall quality of life. PTs can recommend foot orthotics, knee braces and hand splints.
An occupational therapist (OT) can look at what you do in a day and develop a program to help lessen your symptoms and improve your function. An OT can do a home or workplace assessment to identify ways to protect your joints and can recommend tools and aids to help you conserve energy and improve your independence. Examples include use of a cane and raised seats to decrease stress on your hip and knee joints; use of wide gripped tools and utensils to decrease stress on your hand joints; or the use of shoehorns or buttonhooks to help with dressing. OTs can also recommend foot orthotics, knee braces and hand splints.
Other therapies often used to help manage osteoarthritis symptoms include:
Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese therapy that is said to help restore the body’s energy flow (Qi) by inserting thin needles into areas of the body that follow energy lines, known as meridians. Acupuncture is sometimes used to alleviate pain and treat various physical and mental health conditions. Acupuncture has been shown to yield anti-inflammatory effects and regulation of immune system function. However, there is limited research evidence regarding its impact on arthritis symptoms. Because of its low risk of harm, acupuncture combined with standard arthritis medication strategies may be beneficial in reducing pain and improving quality of life.
Massage of muscles and other soft tissues by a registered massage therapist, may help provide short-term relief of stiffness and pain. Other potential benefits include a reduction in stress and anxiety as well as improved mobility and overall function of the joints. However, there currently isn’t enough research evidence to suggest massage should be recommended for everyone managing osteoarthritis symptoms. Always consult your family doctor or rheumatologist to see if massage therapy is safe and appropriate for your form of arthritis.
Inform your healthcare provider of any complementary and alternative therapies you are taking, receiving or would like to try. Your health-care provider can offer valuable advice about these treatments, especially how they may affect other medications and treatments.
Your care plan should involve education about osteoarthritis, lifestyle changes such as increasing physical activity, eating healthier, weight-loss, and doing therapeutic exercises.”
Medications for osteoarthritis focus on helping to manage pain and improve joint function. For mild symptoms that come and go, you may benefit from using medication as needed. For stronger symptoms, you may require regular use of medication. The best treatment is what works for you – so speak with your doctor and/or pharmacist about what kind of medications are most appropriate for you.
Medications that may help relieve pain from osteoarthritis come in topical forms (e.g., creams or rubs), pill forms, oils, and injections. Common medications used in osteoarthritis are described below:
Surgery for osteoarthritis
When osteoarthritis becomes severe and other therapies are not working, surgery may be considered. The most common surgical procedures for osteoarthritis include hip and knee replacements, but other joints may be partially or fully replaced surgically as well.
Joint replacement surgery can be performed at any age, but is usually reserved for patients with advanced arthritis. The decision to undergo surgery depends on the amount of pain and disability your arthritis is causing, as well as the risks and benefits of surgery. Surgery may not be helpful for patients who only have mild arthritis, even if they have significant pain. This should be discussed further with your doctor.
This osteoarthritis resource was reviewed in February 2021 with expert advice from:
Dr. Sarah E. Ward, MD, FRCSC
Orthopaedic Surgeon, Division of Orthopaedic Surgery
St. Michael’s Hospital
Assistant Professor, Department of Surgery
University of Toronto
Members of the Canadian Arthritis Patient Alliance Steering Committee, including:
- Linda Wilhelm
- Janet Gunderson
- Therese Lane
- Louise Crane
This resource was made possible through unrestricted educational grants from: