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Got Joint Pain? Nine Tips for Safe Pain Management

Aging gracefully can sometimes be a pain … in your joints, that is. Over the years, your joints have provided you much-needed support to move, jump and run. Now, whether from disease or injury, any damage – whether mildly irritating or downright debilitating – can interfere with your movement and take a toll on your entire body—and your mental health.

But there is hope. Aging doesn’t have to hold you back from still living your best life. Here are nine ways to help reduce symptoms and get yourself some much-needed relief.

1. Keep it moving. When you’re in pain, the last thing you may want to do is get up and move, let alone exercise. But physical activity, including strength training, is actually one prescription to relieve common causes of joint pain. It can decrease stiffness, pain and inflammation from different forms of arthritis, increase range of motion and strengthen the muscles that support your joints.

“Low-impact exercise programs like swimming, cycling or walking are a great way to get moving,” suggested Brian McCardel, MD, an orthopedic surgeon with Banner Health Center in Glendale, AZ. “I have a family member who avoided regular aerobic exercise for years owing it to osteoarthritis in her knees, worried that she would ‘wreck them even sooner.’ It turns out that she is doing much better since she started working out regularly.”

2. Maintain a healthy weight. If you’re overweight, weight loss can relieve the added pressure and wear and tear extra weight places on your painful joints. An effective way to do this is to stick to low-impact exercises (and a healthy diet).

3. Ice, ice it baby. Ice can help reduce blood flow to the areas of pain and swelling. Apply ice packs for 15 minutes at a time throughout the day.

[Confused on whether to use ice or heat, check out this infographic.]

4. Use pain relievers wisely. For moderate-to-severe joint pain or arthritis pain with swelling, over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) such as ibuprofen, aspirin or naproxen can help. For pain without swelling, acetaminophen (Tylenol) can help, however, Dr. McCardel says to check with your doctor first.

“If you find them helpful and you’re going to take them on a sustained basis, you should talk to your primary care doctor about it, and should do so before starting them if you have known liver, kidney, ulcer or clotting problems, or you are taking a blood thinner of any kind,” he said.

If your pain is very severe, and OTC pain medications aren’t cutting it, your doctor may prescribe a stronger opioid medication such as codeine, tramadol or morphine. Because there are risks with using this type of medication, it’s important to discuss with your doctor first before using them.

“You would think that you wouldn’t have to say that, but many people who become addicted do so on ‘borrowed’ pills from friends or family members,” Dr. McCardel said. “In some communities, it is the most common source.”

5. Brace or wrap it up. If the pain is too great, try to immobilize the area with a splint, wrap or brace.

6. Try steroid or hyaluronic acid injections. If you’re not getting relief from oral or topical medications, your doctor can inject a corticosteroid or hyaluronic acid injection (known as a rooster comb injection). Talk to your doctor about which would be the most suitable choice.

7. Work with a physical therapist. A specialist trained in human movement can help strengthen the muscles around the joint, stabilize the joint and improve your range of motion.

8. Consider alternative treatments. You may find some pain relief from trying yoga, meditation, massage and acupuncture. It’s a good idea to talk with your doctor first.

9. Undergo a surgical intervention. If joint pain is serious enough that it’s impairing your quality of life, arthroscopic surgery or joint replacement surgery may be another choice. This decision should be made when two things have occurred: when you’ve tried enough non-operative options to feel like you are beyond that, and when, as a result, you come to the conclusion that “it’s just stupid” to wait.

“Many people will have a moment of real clarity with that when they realize they’ve been fooling themselves, and it is time to get on with things,” Dr. McCardel said. “Surgery should be a conclusion driven by the pain and limitations you’re dealing with. As a surgeon, I can inform that decision, but it should be one the patient makes.”

[Learn more about arthroscopic surgery and joint replacement.]

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