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Don’t let joint pain keep you down and out

Whether you feel it in your knees, hips, elbows or elsewhere, joint pain can be distracting to the point of dominating your every waking moment. It’s normal to want relief — and to want it fast. 

“There are many ways to deal with chronic joint pain and discomfort, including rest, strengthening, exercise and surgery,” says Dr. Matthew McElroy, a sports medicine specialist at Geisinger. “But over-the-counter medications are among the most common treatments people typically start with.”

However, there are many options to choose from. Here’s where to start.

Why do my joints hurt?

You have 250 to 350 joints in your body that provide support and help you move. When you damage your joints — whether due to injury, overuse or an underlying condition — you may not be able to move comfortably. 

Pain or discomfort might interfere with your day-to-day living. This joint pain can be temporary, or it can be ongoing, explains Dr. McElroy.

Painful joints are caused by many types of injuries or conditions. People of all ages and activity levels can have joint pain. Your pain might be the result of:

  • Overuse
  • Osteoarthritis, commonly called OA
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Excess weight
  • Worn cartilage
  • Tendon or ligament tear
  • Other injuries

What about weight loss?

Mild to moderate weight loss can significantly reduce joint pain and slow the progression of arthritis, especially when combined with low impact and strengthening exercises for major muscle groups.

Talk to your physician or fitness coach to find out which exercises are best for you.

What is a good supplement for joint pain?

Before you stock your medicine cabinet, here’s a rundown of the most widely used over-the-counter (OTC) treatments.

  • OTC pain relievers. For swelling, the best solutions are general pain relievers that reduce inflammation and don’t contain steroids. These pain medications are extremely common and include ibuprofen (Advil®, Motrin®), naproxen (Aleve®) and aspirin. OTC pain medications can help reduce pain, aches and/or inflammation. If you’re taking other medications, be sure to consult your pharmacist before using any OTC pain relievers. 

If you don’t have swelling or inflammation, acetaminophen (Tylenol®) can help. Be careful to avoid drinking alcohol while taking acetaminophen, however, as it can cause liver damage.

  • Topical treatments. Available in cream, spray, rub or gel forms, topical pain relievers are applied to the skin of the affected area to help reduce pain and swelling. 

“Medications that are applied directly to the sore area can include counterirritants that contain menthol or camphor, which counteract pain perceptions. These include products such as Icy Hot® and Biofreeze®.” 

The key ingredients active in these medicines include capsaicin and salicylates.

Dr. McElroy adds, “Capsaicin is the chemical in chili peppers that give them their ‘heat’ and interacts with your neurons to relieve pain, while salicylates have the same effects of aspirin.”

  • Hot or cold therapy. Hot and cold treatments can help decrease inflammation, pain and stiffness. Heat therapy includes dry heat (heating pads) and moist heat, like a hot bath or shower, and improves circulation and relaxes the muscles. Cold therapy, such as an ice pack or a cold compress, helps reduce swelling.

“In addition to traditional medication, heating wraps and pads can also be used to relieve joint pain and don’t have serious side effects,” says Dr. McElroy. 

  • Vitamins and supplements. Glucosamine or chondroitin sulfate are common supplements that contain material found in the joints, which may assist with regeneration. Antioxidants, which are often found in supplements, can also help prevent and treat joint pain by reducing inflammation. Omega 3s are found in fish oil and regulate body functions that manage inflammation. Green tea is also a natural anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. 

A lack of Vitamin D can also lead to joint pain. 

“It’s important that when treating your joint pain with traditional medication you also take advantage of natural remedies,” says Dr. McElroy. “Getting more sunlight — with sunscreen, of course — is one of the best ways to help yourself if you haven’t been getting out of the house enough.” 

The type of pain you have will determine the treatment that’s most appropriate. Be sure to talk with your doctor before you start any new treatments and to understand how any medications you’re taking might interact.

Next steps:

Request an appointment with Matthew McElroy, DO
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