Whether it’s an achy knee that makes a few stairs feel like climbing a mountain or a sore hip that turns a leisurely walk into a marathon, joint pain has a way of working its way into many people’s lives. So much so that a recent National Poll on Healthy Aging found 70 percent of people over the age of 50 experience joint pain at least occasionally. About 60 percent of Americans have been diagnosed with some form of arthritis, which is the leading cause of disability in the United States.
“Joints are designed to do a particular job of keeping you moving, but over time injury or wear and tear can set in and lead to arthritis,” says Robert Kadoko, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon on the medical staff of Texas Health HEB and who works at Texas Health Orthopedic Specialists, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice. “Essentially, it’s like gray hair. If you live long enough, you will experience some joint pain.”
No matter how joint pain creeps in, the desire for relief may leave many thinking surgery is the only treatment option. The good news is more conservative approaches to care exist that can delay surgery or greatly relieve symptoms. Kadoko sees patients for varying degrees of joint pain and says he takes a non-surgical approach to treatment whenever possible.
“For people with occasional flare-ups, a combination of therapy, topical (on the skin) medication and lifestyle modification often does the trick,” Kadoko explains. “In more advanced cases, where quality of life becomes a real issue, the discussion typically turns to the benefits of joint replacement surgery. First and foremost, the patient must look at their unique needs for mobility in the bigger picture of their overall health as we weigh treatment and management plans.”
Before surgery becomes a consideration, Kadoko notes that there are good alternative treatment options for managing a patient’s joint pain and other symptoms.
- Anti-inflammatory medication. This medication be either by taken orally, in the form of over-the-counter NSAID pain relievers, or applied topically as a cream to the affected joint. Common nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications include acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen. Others may be prescribed by a physician.
- Injections. Joint injections may take the form of corticosteroids to reduce inflammation, or hyaluronic acid to lubricate the joint, depending on the location of the joint pain and state of the joint.
- Lifestyle modification. Making changes in your daily life, such as losing weight, skipping tobacco use and/or doing low-impact exercises can have a positive effect on your joints. Staying active is one of the best ways to keep joint pain at bay, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
- Physical therapy. Exercises designed by a qualified therapist can improve joint mobility and tips on posture and movement can help you work around pain and avoid further joint damage.
- Assistive devices and home remedies. The use of a cane, brace or shoe inserts may promote better mobility. Applying a heating pad or ice pack to the joint may help reduce swelling and pain.
When to See a Doctor
Kadoko cautions that anyone with an existing medical condition should consult their physician before starting a medication for joint pain. “It may be helpful to see a joint care specialist for one visit before you start up any treatment on your own. Some treatment options have good intentions but don’t work all that well or could even hurt you.”
Additionally, the Arthritis Foundation recommends watching for these potential signs and symptoms to know when to see a doctor for your joint pain:
- Pain, swelling or stiffness in one or more joints
- Joints that are red or warm to the touch
- Joint tenderness or stiffness
- Difficulty moving a joint or doing daily activities
- Joint symptoms that cause you concern
- Joint symptoms that last three days or more
- Several episodes of joint symptoms within a month
When a patient has tried non-surgical treatments for an extended period of time without sufficient improvement in their symptoms, Kadoko says the next step is likely arthroscopic surgery or joint replacement surgery. With arthroscopy, small incisions are used to access the joint, see inside it and clean out any damage.
If the arthritis has become chronically painful, joint replacement may promote a better outcome. “There currently aren’t a lot of good treatment options when joints begin to wear out,” he says. “When cartilage becomes damaged and worn, there isn’t a way to recover it. Joint replacement is most effective and necessary for arthritis that is painful and hasn’t responded well to other treatments. However, patients of advanced age or who are significantly overweight are not good candidates for joint replacement.”
During joint replacement surgery, the arthritic or damaged portion of the joint is removed and replaced with a device designed to replicate the movement of a healthy joint. “Today, even surgery doesn’t have to cause a total disruption to your life,” Kadoko explains. “Minimally invasive and advanced techniques can shorten the time it takes to heal and decrease any related pain so you can get back to living an active lifestyle. Knowing the cause of your joint pain or what type of arthritis you have will put you on the path to getting the right treatment and management plan for your situation.”