Treatment of arthritis depends on the particular cause, which joints are affected, severity, and how the condition affects your daily activities. Your age and occupation will also be taken into consideration when your doctor works with you to create a treatment plan.
If possible, treatment will focus on eliminating the underlying cause of the arthritis. However, the cause is NOT necessarily curable, as with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Treatment, therefore, aims at reducing your pain and discomfort and preventing further disability.
It is possible to greatly improve your symptoms from osteoarthritis and other long-term types of arthritis without medications. In fact, making lifestyle changes without medications is preferable for osteoarthritis and other forms of joint inflammation. If needed, medications should be used in addition to lifestyle changes.
Exercise for arthritis is necessary to maintain healthy joints, relieve stiffness, reduce pain and fatigue, and improve muscle and bone strength. Your exercise program should be tailored to you as an individual.
Work with a physical therapist to design an individualized program, which should include:
- Low-impact aerobic activity (also called endurance exercise)
- Range of motion exercises for flexibility
- Strength training for muscle tone
A physical therapist can apply heat and cold treatments as needed and fit you for splints or orthotic (straightening) devices to support and align joints. This may be particularly necessary for rheumatoid arthritis. Your physical therapist may also consider water therapy, ice massage, or transcutaneous nerve stimulation (TENS).
Rest is just as important as exercise. Sleeping 8 to 10 hours per night and taking naps during the day can help you recover from a flare-up more quickly and may even help prevent exacerbations.
You should also:
- Avoid holding one position for too long.
- Avoid positions or movements that place extra stress on your affected joints.
- Modify your home to make activities easier. For example, have grab bars in the shower, the tub, and near the toilet.
- Reduce stress, which can aggravate your symptoms. Try meditation or guided imagery. And talk to your physical therapist about yoga or tai chi.
Other measures to try include:
- Apply capsaicin cream (derived from hot chili peppers) to the skin over your painful joints. You may feel improvement after applying the cream for 3-7 days.
- Eat a diet rich in vitamins and minerals, especially antioxidants like vitamin E. These are found in fruits and vegetables. Get selenium from Brewer's yeast, wheat germ, garlic, whole grains, sunflower seeds, and Brazil nuts. Get omega-3 fatty acids from cold water fish (like salmon, mackerel, and herring), flaxseed, rapeseed (canola) oil, soybeans, soybean oil, pumpkin seeds, and walnuts.
- Taking glucosamine and chondroitin -- these form the building blocks of cartilage, the substance that lines joints. These supplements are available at health food stores or supermarkets. While some studies show such supplements may reduce osteoarthritis symptoms, others show no benefit. However, since these products are regarded as safe, they are reasonable to try and many patients find their symptoms improve.
Your doctor will choose from a variety of medications as needed. Generally, the first drugs to try are available without a prescription.
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol) -- recommended by the American College of Rheumatology and the American Geriatrics Society as first-line treatment for osteoarthritis. Take up to 4 grams a day (two arthritis-strength Tylenol every 8 hours). This can provide significant relief of arthritis pain without many of the side effects of prescription drugs. DO NOT exceed the recommended doses of acetaminophen or take the drug in combination with large amounts of alcohol. These actions may damage your liver.
- Aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen -- these nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are often effective in combating arthritis pain. However, they have many potential risks, especially if used for a long time. They should not be taken in any amount without consulting your doctor. Potential side effects include heart attack, stroke, stomach ulcers, bleeding from the digestive tract, and kidney damage. In 2005, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asked makers of NSAIDs to include a warning label on their product that alerts users of an increased risk for heart attack, stroke, and gastrointestinal bleeding. If you have kidney or liver disease, or a history of gastrointestinal bleeding, you should not take these medicines unless your doctor specifically recommends them.
Prescription medicines include:
- Biologics-- these are the most recent breakthrough for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. Such medications, including etanercept (Enbrel), infliximab (Remicade) and adalimumab (Humira), are administered by injection and can dramatically improve your quality of life. Newer biologics include Orencia (abatacept) and Rituxan (rituximab).
- Corticosteroids ("steroids") -- these are medications that suppress the immune system and symptoms of inflammation. They are often injected into painful osteoarthritic joints. Steroids are used to treat autoimmune forms of arthritis but should be avoided in infectious arthritis. Steroids have multiple side effects, including upset stomach and gastrointestinal bleeding, high blood pressure, thinning of bones, cataracts, and increased infections. The risks are most pronounced when steroids are taken for long periods of time or at high doses. Close supervision by a physician is essential.
- Cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) inhibitors -- These drugs block an inflammation-promoting enzyme called COX-2. This class of drugs was initially believed to work as well as traditional NSAIDs, but with fewer stomach problems. However, numerous reports of heart attacks and stroke have prompted the FDA to re-evaluate the risks and benefits of the COX-2s. Celecoxib (Celebrex) is still available, but labeled with strong warnings and a recommendation that it be prescribed at the lowest possible dose for the shortest duration possible. Talk to your doctor about whether COX-2s are right for you.
- Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs -- these have been used traditionally to treat rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune causes of arthritis. These drugs include gold salts, penicillamine, sulfasalazine, and hydroxychloroquine. More recently, methotrexate has been shown to slow the progression of rheumatoid arthritis and improve your quality of life. Methotrexate itself can be highly toxic and requires frequent blood tests for patients on the medication.
- Immunosuppressants -- these drugs, like azathioprine or cyclophosphamide, are used for serious cases of rheumatoid arthritis when other medications have failed.
It is very important to take your medications as directed by your doctor. If you are having difficulty doing so (for example, due to intolerable side effects), you should talk to your doctor.
SURGERY AND OTHER APPROACHES
In some cases, surgery to rebuild the joint (arthroplasty) or to replace the joint (such as a total knee joint replacement) may help maintain a more normal lifestyle. The decision to perform joint replacement surgery is normally made when other alternatives, such as lifestyle changes and medications, are no longer effective.
Normal joints contain a lubricant called synovial fluid. In joints with arthritis, this fluid is not produced in adequate amounts. In some cases, a doctor may inject the arthritic joint with a manmade version of joint fluid. The synthetic fluid may postpone the need for surgery at least temporarily and improve the quality of life for persons with arthritis.