Signs and symptoms of osteoarthritis

    Osteoarthritis tends to creep up on you, gradually increasing over months or years.

    Stiff and painful joints are the main symptoms. The pain tends to be worse on exercising the joint and at the end of the day. Joints tend to be stiff after resting but this usually passes in just a minute or two as the joint gets moving again. A joint may not move as freely or as far as normal, and often ‘creaks' or ‘cracks' when moved.

    Occasionally the joint seems to give way because of weak muscles or loss of stability. Muscle exercises can strengthen the muscles and help prevent this. Changes in the weather (especially damp and low pressure) can make joint pain worse for some people – others find it depends on how much physical activity they do.

    Often the joint appears a little swollen, due either to hard bony osteophytes, or to extra synovial fluid (which will feel soft), while the muscles around the joint look a little thinner. In some advanced cases, more severe and constant pain may develop and occur not only with or after exercise but even at rest or at night. Certain daily tasks and activities may then prove difficult, depending on which joint is affected, and your independence may be limited.

    Although there is no cure for osteoarthritis, there are many ways in which you can relieve your symptoms and reduce the likelihood of things progressing. It is important that you get to know about osteoarthritis and its treatments so you can take the lead in looking after yourself and your condition.

    Several aspects of your daily routine and lifestyle may need to be changed. These can prove more important in the long term in helping your osteoarthritis than any medication.

    1. Reduce the stress on painful osteoarthritic joints

    • Keep to your ideal weight. If you are overweight, losing even a few kilograms will reduce the stress on your hips, knees and feet. Combining regular exercise with a diet is often better than dieting alone. ‘Dieting' means altering your eating habits forever, not just for a few months.
    • Pace your activities through the day. Spread physically hard jobs (such as housework, mowing the lawn) at intervals through the day, rather than tackling them all at once.
    • Wear shoes with thick soft soles that act as shock absorbers for your feet, knees, hips and back. Trainers with ‘air' soles are ideal, but some fashion shoes now use these soles. For women it is also important to have flat heels.
    • Use a walking stick to reduce the weight and stress on a painful hip or knee. A therapist or doctor can advise on the correct length of the stick and how to use it properly.
    • Protect your joints. Avoid unnecessary activities that put a lot of strain on your joints. Think of modifying your home, car or workplace to minimise unnecessary stresses. If you find it hard to cope at home, an occupational therapist can give you advice on ways to protect your joints and improve the amount you can do.

    2. Exercise

    There are three types of exercise that you need to do, including: flexibility exercises; endurance or aerobic exercises; and strengthening exercises. Firstly, flexibility exercises that move joints will help maintain and enhance joint suppleness. Secondly, any exercise that increases your pulse rate and makes you breathless (low-impact aerobic exercise) can reduce your pain and allow you to do more. Lastly, strengthening exercise will improve the strength and tone of the muscles that act over your osteoarthritic joint (for example, the front thigh muscle, or quadriceps, for knee osteoarthritis). This helps to stabilise and protect osteoarthritic joints and reduces the pain. Such strengthening exercise also reduces your risk of falling over (a common problem in older people). Keep to this exercise regimen daily and pain and movement will improve greatly.

    Learning how to relax your muscles and release body tension can also help enormously, especially when you are in pain. Physiotherapists and occupational therapists can give you advice on how to relax, overcome mobility problems, avoid joint strain and how to cope with pain.

    3. Supplements

    The following supplements help relieve the pain and stiffness associated with osteoarthritis: chondroitin sulfate; SAM-e (S-adenosyl-methionine); Boswellia serrata (Indian frankincense); capsaicin (Capsicum frutescens); tumeric/curcumin (Curcuma longa); fish oil (omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA); NEM®(eggshell membrane) and ginger (Zingiber officinale).

    4. Vitamins and minerals

    Vitamin A supports bone growth; vitamin C maintains collagen and connective tissue; and vitamin D builds and maintains strong bones and helps with calcium absorption. The minerals calcium and magnesium strengthen bones.

    5. Natural therapies

    The following non-invasive, natural therapies may help with osteoarthritis: massage, heat pads and cold treatments, aromatherapy, occupational/and or physical therapy, and mind-body pain relief.

    In the event that your symptoms and pain do not abate, do not hesitate to contact your health practitioner as prescribed medication or surgery may be needed.

    Editor's Note: For more information on joints, read my article on Joint Health.


    1. The Arthritis Foundation
    2. The Arthritis Foundation of South Africa
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