Partnering with your doctor to treat OA

Osteoarthritis (OA) is a condition that can seriously affect your quality of life if you simply try to ignore it. Pain and stiffness caused by the breaking down and wearing away of cartilage can affect the joints of the knees, hips, hands, feet, and spine, among others, causing pain and weakness.

People who try to treat OA on their own run the risk of allowing the condition to progress faster than it should, and suffering from ill effects caused by use of drugs that may not be appropriate.

Your doctor wants you to be the most important partner in your health. You can do this by talking openly with your doctor and asking questions about your condition and your treatment. This way you can make choices based on the balance of benefits and risks associated with each type of treatment. Come prepared when you visit your doctor to speak about OA treatment. Below are some things to consider.

Does your doctor have all the information necessary for making recommendations for treatment? Write down exactly where you are experiencing your pain as well as the following important information:

  • what time of day and/or after what activities it hurts most
  • whether the pain is constant or comes and goes
  • how long the pain lasts
  • whether or not the pain wakes you up at night
  • how your pain affects your ability to perform daily activities such as dressing, opening jars, and going up and down the stairs
  • medications you have tried and all the medications you are taking now

Do you know all your treatment options? Ask your doctor these questions:

  • Which lifestyle changes (e.g., exercise, weight loss, day to day living) will improve my OA symptoms?
  • Would heat or cold application help the pain and/or inflammation associated with my OA?
  • Would I benefit from knee braces or orthotics?
  • Which pain-relieving medication would be best suited for my circumstances?
  • Would I benefit from a medication that relieves inflammation? If so, which medication is best for me?
  • Do I need to take extra medications to protect my stomach?
  • Would I benefit from any of the medications that are injected into a joint?
  • Would I benefit from a visit to a physiotherapist or occupational therapist?
  • Do you think I might need surgery some day?

OA pain: Don't just tough it out!

There is no need to suffer if your original treatment is not helping your symptoms as much as it should. Once you have learned what to expect from your treatment, you should make sure to contact your doctor if your expectations are not met. If you agree with even one of the following statements, you should make an appointment with your doctor to address the situation (in some cases a different health professional involved in your care may also be able to help you with your issue):

  • My symptoms of OA prevent me from being as active as I would like to be.
  • My symptoms of OA prevent me from doing my job and/or addressing my personal care needs as well as I would like to.
  • I have pain resulting from OA that interferes with my enjoyment of life.
  • I don't think my medications are working as well as they should.
  • I think my medications are causing side effects.
  • I have questions about my treatment that have not been answered.

Self-treatment: Know the risks

Many people falsely assume that if a medication doesn't require a prescription then it must be safe. This is far from the truth! For example, ibuprofen, a non-prescription anti-inflammatory product, is also available in higher doses on prescription. When used for long periods of time, these medications can cause stomach ulcers and even stomach bleeding, which can be very dangerous. As a general rule of thumb you should always ask your pharmacist to help you choose medications when they don't require a prescription. You should also see your doctor if:

  • your symptoms have lasted for more than 7 days
  • your symptoms have resulted from injury or are accompanied by severe pain
  • you have fever or other signs of infection
  • your muscles around your joints feel weak
  • you have burning, numbness, or tingling
  • you have stiffness in your joints
  • you are pregnant
  • you have a heart, kidney, or liver condition or stomach ulcer or any medical condition that might be affected by medications

Changed your mind about treatment?

When taking medications, we can often get discouraged if we don't think they are working as well as they should, or if they give us side effects that seem as bothersome as the problem we are trying to treat. Far too often, people in these circumstances just stop taking their medication and don't tell anyone! Although this may seem logical at the time, you should know that there is always a way to treat a problem differently or avoid side effects - if only we take time to talk with our doctor.

Doctors are used to finding other solutions. For example, if you are taking acetaminophen for OA pain, but are not getting relief, an anti-inflammatory may be in order. If you are getting an upset stomach from the anti-inflammatory you are taking, then the doctor may recommend a pill to protect your stomach or a switch to a different anti-inflammatory, or both. Your doctor has options that are much better than stopping your treatment and allowing OA to progress. If you stop your treatment, you may be reducing your quality of life in the present, but are also risking a faster progression of your condition. That route could lead to further disability and the need for surgery or joint replacement in the future.

The bottom line? Make sure you discuss all of your treatment options with your doctor. Your future quality of life could depend on it!