As our bodies age, the cartilage in joints can become worn down. This cartilage is slippery and helps cushion joints, making movement smooth and easy. When cartilage begins to wear away, movement can become painful. This type of joint damage, caused by years of slow wear-and-tear, is called osteoarthritis. Here’s how you can make osteoarthritis management a consistent part of your day (and night!).
What are the basics of osteoarthritis management?
There are many different types of arthritis, but osteoarthritis is the most widespread. It most often affects older individuals, but it’s not uncommon for young athletes to develop osteoarthritis as a result of playing through injuries. Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, affecting an estimated 26.9 million people in the United States, and it’s usually the result of years of natural wear and tear on the joints.
No matter whether it’s the result of aging, past injuries, or a combination thereof, the symptoms of osteoarthritis are similar. People with osteoarthritis often experience pain in the knees, low back, hips, neck, or shoulders. If you’re immobile for an extended period, you may also experience joint stiffness. Affected joints might also swell or become tender to the touch, and these joints might also produce a crunching feeling or sound.
Living with osteoarthritis can be challenging sometimes, but there are many ways to manage the discomfort. Here are our top ten ways to treat and incorporate osteoarthritis management into your day. There’s additional information on the link between osteoarthritis management and sleep issues because this topic is especially important for managing pain.
1. Eat healthy foods
Try to emphasize unprocessed foods, and eat from all the food groups. Some particularly healthy foods include:
- Lean proteins, especially fish or fat-free dairy
- Dark or leafy greens, such as broccoli, kale, and spinach
- Fresh fruits, particularly berries and cherries
- Fresh vegetables, like carrots and peppers
- Healthy fats (omega-3 fatty acids), from nuts, fish, or olive oil
- Spices, especially turmeric and ginger
2. Avoid inflammatory foods
Certain foods encourage painful inflammation. Avoiding these foods can reduce swelling and discomfort. Some common inflammatory foods include:
- Fatty proteins
- Prepackaged and processed foods
- Carbohydrates, especially “white” carbs like white bread, white rice, and white pasta
- Palm oil, found in foods like margarine or prepackaged snacks
3. Exercise regularly
Keeping active can help you maintain a healthy weight, which will reduce strain on painful joints. Exercising will also help you maintain strong bones and strengthen supporting muscles. You’ll also have more energy during the day and sleep better at night if you do some exercise each day.
However, make sure you choose your exercises carefully, since the wrong kinds of activity might worsen your pain. Choose low-impact exercises, like walking, swimming, yoga, or biking. Some light weight-training can also be beneficial. To get the most out of your workout, try to focus on slowly strengthening the muscles around the joints affected by osteoarthritis. Ask your physician, a physical therapist, or a personal trainer for ideas if you’re at a loss. Above all, remember that the saying “no pain, no gain” is not true. If something hurts, don’t do it.
4. Get enough sleep
Sleep can help you feel better overall, and it will give you more energy to exercise. Also, sleep deprivation has been associated with an increased risk of depression, disability, and worsened pain. If you begin to experience one of these symptoms, it can in turn affect your quality of sleep; this can quickly become a vicious cycle. For example, a poor night’s sleep can worsen your osteoarthritis pain, which can interfere with your sleep, which can then further worsen your pain.
It’s easy to underestimate the importance of a good night’s sleep, until you’re denied it. Unfortunately, for many people who live with pain from osteoarthritis, sleeping well can be difficult.
Research on osteoarthritis management and sleep issues
Several studies have noted the relationship between osteoarthritis pain and sleep disturbances.
First and foremost, there’s the obvious way that osteoarthritis pain can interfere with sleep: when a part of the body hurts, it’s harder to sleep. For instance, a sore hip can force someone to alternate sides every few hours to avoid extreme pain, or osteoarthritis in the spine can make it impossible to sleep on the back.
Aside from the simple difficulty of sleeping while in pain, there may be a deeper connection. A lack of sleep might trigger an increase in painful inflammation, as well as increase an individual’s perception of pain. An article at Reuters.com delves into this more deeply, stating:
“Researchers found that people with knee osteoarthritis and insomnia were also more likely to suffer from a nervous system disorder called ‘central sensitization’ that makes them more sensitive to pain and lowers their threshold for tolerating discomfort.”
This means that while pain can interfere with sleep, a lack of sleep can exacerbate pain – further interfering with sleep patterns. Additionally, the risk of depression both increases and is increased by sleep deprivation and chronic pain. One study even confirmed that depression, pain, and sleep disturbances form a vicious cycle for people with osteoarthritis, with each condition worsening the others.
Improve sleep to improve symptoms
However, just as sleep problems and osteoarthritis pain can each worsen the other, the reverse is also true. Improving one will also improve the other.
Research published by the American Pain Society confirmed that the severity of sleep deprivation is associated with altered pain perception. In other words, the worse a person’s sleep issues are, the more he or she might experience pain.
This same research also noted that better sleep could lead to less pain. With a few good nights’ rest, the cycle between osteoarthritis pain and sleep trouble could be flipped around. Better sleep could lead to less pain, which could, in turn, lead to better sleep. It’s worth noting, however, that this particular study suggested that improved sleep could lessen pain. Therefore, simply focusing on lessening pain might not be enough to make an impact; you should address sleep problems just as deliberately as osteoarthritis symptoms.
Therapy to improve sleep
One study also found that talk therapy can be a very effective treatment for osteoarthritis pain. Mindfulness-based talk therapy, or talk therapy that focuses on acknowledging current feelings, has shown potential as a way to alter the brain’s responses to pain perception.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is another form of talk therapy that focuses on learning to change the way you think in order to change the way you act and respond. Research has shown that not only can cognitive behavioral therapy help reduce pain, but it can also improve sleep quality. There are different types of cognitive behavioral therapy, so it’s possible to undergo therapy for either pain or for sleep issues (or both). Specialized cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia might be particularly beneficial to individuals with osteoarthritis pain who have trouble sleeping.
These same types of therapies – mindfulness talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and many complementary and alternative treatments – can also help treat depression. Since depression is another facet of the vicious cycle mentioned above, along with sleep issues and osteoarthritis pain, pursing therapy could help break that cycle in another way. It’s easy to know if you have pain or sleep problems, but knowing whether or not you have depression can be difficult. If you wonder at all if your osteoarthritis pain and sleep issues are accompanied by depression, discuss the possibility with your physician.
Cultivating good sleeping habits
Good general sleep habits can also help with sleep problems.
A few simple changes really can make it much easier to get a good night’s sleep. These changes should be incorporated into any osteoarthritis management plan. Avoid daytime naps and caffeine (especially from late afternoon on). Spend an hour or so before bed doing something that doesn’t involve an electronic screen, since screens (like TVs, computers, or tablets) can stimulate the brain. Also make sure that your bedroom is for sleeping. Clear out the clutter, dim the lights, and keep the bedroom a sanctuary for sleep – not a place for doing late-night paperwork or binge-watching TV shows.
Remember that pain control and sleep are important. If your osteoarthritis pain isn’t controlled well, or if you’re having difficulty sleeping, talk to your physician about it. Discuss both short-term and long-term ways to address your issues, such as medications for short-term help or cognitive behavioral therapy for long-term help.
5. Take advantage of at-home, drug-free treatments
No matter what you do, you’ll have good days and bad days. Be sure that you have a few drug-free ways to lessen your pain at home. This way, you won’t have to worry about interactions with any other medications you take. A few options include hand-held massagers or massage pillows, analgesic creams, or at-home transcutaneous electrical nervous stimulation (TENS) devices. Do keep in mind, though, that certain products (like pain-relieving creams or patches) are contraindicated if you use heart medications, so make sure you check warning labels.
6. Explore alternative treatments
Alternative treatments and therapies may help with your osteoarthritis management. Massage, acupuncture, or chiropractic adjustment might all provide you with some relief. These types of therapies can also reduce your stress, which can in turn reduce your pain. Point out to the practitioner that you have osteoarthritis, as well as which joints are affected and any medications you’re taking, before you undergo any treatment.
7. Talk to your physician about vitamins and supplements
Some supplements, like glucosamine, have shown promise as a potential way to help with osteoarthritis. Your physician will know which types of supplements might be beneficial for you, as well as which might interact with your medications. Additionally, discuss your diet with your physician. If you’re unable to get enough of certain nutrients – like calcium, vitamin K, or vitamin D – from your diet alone, your physician might suggest some supplemental vitamins.
8. Follow your physician’s directions
Simple as it sounds, this is an important step in taking care of yourself and practicing osteoarthritis management. If your physician prescribes a medication, take it as prescribed. If he or she prescribes physical therapy or suggests a referral to a specialist, follow through. However, if your physician prescribes or suggests something you don’t agree with, discuss it until you’ve changed your mind or the two of you have come up with an agreeable alternative.
9. Have back-up medications on hand for painful days
Drug-free pain management tools and therapies are great, but sometimes you need something stronger. Know what you’re allowed to take, and keep it on-hand – even if you don’t think you’ll need it any time soon. This might mean asking your physician which over-the-counter pain medications are okay to take with your prescription medications. If your pain is more severe, it might mean keeping a prescription painkiller on-hand for as-needed relief.
10. Discuss any changing or worsening pain with your physician
In some cases, stronger interventional therapies might be the best way to treat your osteoarthritis pain. Nerve block injections, radiofrequency ablation, and other interventional treatments can all provide significant relief. For some people, surgery might be the best possible option. When it comes to prescription painkillers, interventional treatments, or surgery, the first step is letting your physician know about your pain.
What ways have you found that works best for osteoarthritis management? If you’re not currently working a pain specialist for your symptoms, you can find one in your area by clicking the button below.