Osteoarthritis: Your Treatment Options Explained
Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis in Australia. Though it can affect people of all ages, it becomes much more common with age, affecting a third of over-75s.
So, what exactly is it? And what’s the best way to treat it?
What is osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis (OA) is a joint condition that affects the bone, cartilage, ligaments and muscles. It’s an inflammatory condition that occurs when a joint is working overtime to repair itself.
- Inflammation around a joint
- Deterioration of the cartilage, the soft cushion between the ends of your bones that stops them grating against each other
- Bone spurs growing at the edge of a joint, which can cause pain when it moves
- Weakened ligaments and tendons around a joint.
Osteoarthritis can be painful and can limit your mobility. Joint pain may make it harder to exercise, which can lead to weight gain and the associated risks of obesity, diabetes and heart conditions. That extra weight can also worsen the pressure on your joints. In addition, osteoarthritis increases the risk of falls and fractures.
That means it’s important to manage osteoarthritis carefully.
Osteoarthritis prevention and treatment options
There is no cure for OA but there are several treatment options. Like many other medical conditions, it’s usually best to start with conservative treatment first, only progressing to more invasive options if you really need to.
A treatment plan for osteoarthritis may include:
- Losing weight, if you’re above a healthy range – check your body mass index here
- Physiotherapy exercises carefully prescribed according to your condition and ability
- Supportive devices such as braces, orthotics and walking sticks
- Pain relief through over-the-counter or prescribed medications
- Pain relief through psychological therapies that change your thoughts and reactions to pain
- Surgery to replace the affected joint if your symptoms cannot be controlled in any other way.
Physiotherapy or surgery for osteoarthritis?
How do you feel about the thought of surgery for osteoarthritis? Some people are keen to avoid surgery while others perceive it as the best option for treating OA. But is it?
There are several different types of surgery for osteoarthritis depending on which joint is affected and to what extent. You might be considering:
- Arthroscopy, a minimally invasive surgery that smooths out the rough parts of a joint
- Arthroplasty, a total joint replacement that may need repeating in a decade or two
- Joint fusion, where rods, pins or screws are used to join two bones together to eliminate uncomfortable friction, reducing your flexibility into the bargain.
Surgery may be appropriate if:
- You have given a conservative treatment plan a fair try, doing your exercises regularly as prescribed, but it hasn’t helped
- You can’t live well with your current level of pain
- You’re struggling with the side effects of medications
- You’re otherwise healthy enough for surgery
- You’re committed to rehab after surgery (you’ll need to do your physiotherapy then or the surgery will not work as well as you hoped).
All surgery has risks. It’s an invasive procedure that incurs risks ranging from a bad reaction to the anaesthetic to a persistent infection. The biggest risk, though, is that you experience all the risks of surgery, including cost and time off work, without reaping the benefits of improved joint function.
A 2013 study comparing treatment approaches for knee osteoarthritis found that physiotherapy was just as good as knee surgery plus physiotherapy in terms of functional outcomes. That reinforced the results of a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2008 which showed that medical treatments and physiotherapy improved pain and stiffness to the same degree as surgery. In their words, surgery for osteoarthritis of the knee ‘provides no additional benefit’. It does involve additional costs and risks though.
Benefits of physiotherapy for osteoarthritis?
Physiotherapy has many benefits for osteoarthritis.
A skilled physiotherapist can design a tailored treatment program that helps you to:
- Improve range of motion in the affected joint
- Strengthen the muscles that support that joint
- Improve balance
- Improve posture
- Feel more confident about exercise.
Physiotherapists can also help you understand your condition, feel more in control of it, manage pain, prescribe supportive devices, order tests and, if necessary, refer you to other health professionals for additional care.
How can The Brisbane Spine Clinic help?
We help you to move more freely using evidence-based treatments for osteoarthritis. That helps you to improve your quality of life and limits the progression of your condition.
Please make an appointment to see one of our skilled physiotherapists for a full assessment and a personalised treatment plan.
All information is general in nature. Patients should consider their own personal circumstances and seek a second opinion.