Whether age, genetics, overuse or injury is the cause for joint pain, no one wants to experience it longer than necessary.
Rest, ice, compression and elevation — easily remembered with the mnemonic device "RICE" — are usually recommended for at-home care. However, when that, along with use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), doesn't work, it might be time to talk to your doctor.
"Joint pain that doesn't respond to RICE and NSAIDs, or joint pain that keeps coming back despite these treatment measures, should be evaluated by a primary care physician," says Dr. Steven Allsing, an orthopedic surgeon affiliated with Sharp Community Medical Group. "If a diagnosis of osteoarthritis is made, we first try to treat a patient with the least-invasive treatments."
Osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis and a leading cause of disability worldwide, is a degenerative bone disease that causes cartilage found on healthy joints to break down. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 46 percent of people will develop knee osteoarthritis over their lifetime. Osteoarthritis is also commonly found in the hips and spine.
Dr. Allsing will usually recommend the following course of noninvasive treatments to try to relieve pain caused by osteoarthritis:
- Weight loss
- Activity modification (use of a cane or walker)
- Physical therapy with a focus on range of motion, strengthening and gait training
- Over-the-counter medications, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, Excedrin) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
- Prescription medications
- Cortisone or "gel" injections
If joint pain continues after these less-invasive treatments, Dr. Allsing recommends that you seek the advice of an orthopedic surgeon. "The decision to seek treatment is usually based on a patient's level of pain," he says. "However, I have patients with severe pain and mild-appearing X-rays and patients with terrible-looking X-rays and only mild symptoms of pain, so pain levels do not always match the severity of arthritic joints."
Once it is determined that a patient's osteoarthritis has not responded as hoped to nonsurgical treatments, surgery might be suggested. Surgical options, such as partial or total joint replacements, may use robotic arm technology, which helps the surgeon precisely resurface painful and arthritic parts of the joint while preserving natural motion as much as possible.
"In general, the goal of orthopedic surgery is to allow the patient to eventually return to an unrestricted level of activity — understanding, of course, that we are unable to make patients 18 years old again," says Dr. Allsing. "Normal day-to-day activities and non-impact exercise activities that patients enjoy are generally much more comfortable than they were prior to the surgical procedure."
Talk to your doctor if you experience chronic joint pain. Together, you can determine whether noninvasive treatments, such as weight loss or physical therapy, may help or if surgery is required to find relief from joint pain.