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What are coping strategies for osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a common joint disorder that causes pain and stiffness in the joints. It happens when the protective cartilage that cushions the ends of your bones wears down over time. Although osteoarthritis can damage any joint, the disorder most commonly affects joints in your hands, knees, hips and spine.

Osteoarthritis symptoms can usually be managed with coping strategies. While there is no cure for osteoarthritis, several strategies can help reduce pain, maintain joint mobility and improve quality of life. Here are some of the most effective osteoarthritis coping strategies.

Lose Weight

If you are overweight or obese, losing weight can significantly help reduce pain and improve mobility in osteoarthritic joints. Extra body weight puts additional pressure on weight-bearing joints like the hips and knees, hastening cartilage breakdown.

Even modest weight loss can make a big difference. Losing just 10-15 pounds can significantly reduce pressure on your joints and decrease inflammation. Work with your doctor to create a safe, sustainable weight loss plan that incorporates dietary changes and exercise.

Dietary Changes for Weight Loss

To lose weight, focus on eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein. Avoid added sugars, saturated fats and processed foods. Drink plenty of water and limit alcohol intake, which provides empty calories. Keeping a food journal can help you stay mindful of what you eat throughout the day.

Exercise for Weight Loss

Engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per week, such as brisk walking or swimming. Start slowly and gradually increase the duration and intensity of your workouts. Strength training exercises help build muscle mass that further aids weight loss. Low-impact exercises like yoga, Pilates and tai chi are gentler on arthritic joints.

Exercise Regularly

Exercise might seem counterintuitive when joints are sore and stiff. However, regular physical activity provides many benefits beyond just weight loss. Specific exercises can reduce pain, improve flexibility and strengthen the muscles around affected joints.

Aim for 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week. Low-impact activities like walking, cycling, water aerobics and strength training put minimal stress on joints while increasing mobility and supporting overall health. Many fitness centers and gyms offer classes tailored to people with arthritis.

Movement Exercises

Simple movement exercises can lubricate arthritic joints and get them moving more fluidly. Do each exercise five to 10 times, one to two times per day:

  • Ankle circles – Slowly rotate ankles clockwise, then counterclockwise.
  • Leg swings – Standing upright, hold onto something for balance. Gently swing each leg forward and back.
  • Arm circles – Stretch arms straight out to sides. Make small circles forward, then switch to backward circles.
  • Finger bends – Gently bend and straighten fingers on both hands.

Strengthening Exercises

Targeted strength training focuses on the muscles surrounding affected joints. Stronger muscles better support and protect joints. Good strength exercises for osteoarthritis include:

  • Calf raises
  • Leg extensions
  • Hamstring curls
  • Hip abductions
  • Wall pushups

Start with one set of 10 to 15 repetitions. Gradually work up to two to three sets. Use resistance bands or weights to increase difficulty.

Low-Impact Aerobic Exercise

Low-impact aerobic exercise gets your heart pumping faster with minimal stress on joints. Options include:

  • Walking – Start slow, then work up to brisk 30-minute daily walks.
  • Stationary cycling – Adjust seat height so legs are not quite fully extended.
  • Water aerobics – Water buoys your body for an excellent low-impact workout.
  • Elliptical machine – Provides an aerobic workout while maintaining joint stability.

Try Hot and Cold Therapy

Alternating hot and cold treatments can alleviate osteoarthritis pain and stiffness. Heat helps relax tight muscles and increases blood flow. Cold numbs nerve endings and reduces inflammation. Try simple hot and cold therapy at home:

  • Heat – Take a warm shower or bath, apply a heating pad or warm towels to the affected joint for 15 minutes 2-3 times per day.
  • Cold – Wrap an ice pack or bag of frozen vegetables in a thin towel and apply to the joint for 10-15 minutes 2-3 times per day. Never place ice directly on skin.

More advanced thermal modalities like saunas, whirlpools, hot packs and cold compression systems are available at rehabilitation clinics and some fitness centers.

Utilize Assistive Devices

Canes, walkers, splints, braces and shoe inserts can take pressure off arthritic joints to ease pain. Consult your doctor or physical therapist about choosing appropriate assistive devices and proper use. Some common devices for osteoarthritis include:

Device Purpose
Cane Reduces weight placed on hip or knee joints by transferring load to arms and upper body
Walker Provides stability and takes pressure off hips and knees
Knee brace Supports weakened knee joints
Hand splint Stabilizes joints and allows rest
Shoe inserts Cushion arthritic joints in feet and absorb shock

Manage Your Weight

Excess body weight stresses joints and can worsen osteoarthritis pain and inflammation. Losing weight reduces pressure and discomfort in affected joints. Aim to reach and stay at a healthy body weight through diet and exercise. Even losing just 5% of your body weight can make a noticeable difference in osteoarthritis symptoms.

Work with your doctor to develop a safe, sustainable weight loss plan. The key is to make gradual lifestyle changes you can maintain over the long term. Focus on eating more whole, unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins while limiting sugar, saturated fat and alcohol.

Tips for Losing Weight with Osteoarthritis

  • Cut out sugary beverages like soda, juice, and sweetened coffee and tea drinks
  • Read nutrition labels and be mindful of portion sizes
  • Fill up on fiber-rich fruits, vegetables and whole grains at meals
  • Choose healthy fats like olive oil and avocados instead of butter
  • Perform aerobic and strength-training exercises that do not worsen joint pain
  • Aim for slow, steady weight loss of 1-2 pounds per week

Practice Stress Management

Finding healthy ways to cope with stress can reduce osteoarthritis pain. Unmanaged stress triggers the body’s inflammatory response, which can worsen joint pain and stiffness. Relaxation techniques like meditation, deep breathing, yoga, tai chi, massage and listening to music dampen inflammation and quiet the pain signals sent to your brain.

Mind-body practices also divert your focus away from the discomfort in your joints. Daily relaxation sessions help break the pain cycle, boost mood and improve your sense of control over osteoarthritis symptoms.

Stress Management Tips

  • Meditation – Sit quietly, close your eyes and focus on your breathing or a mantra.
  • Yoga – Combine gentle poses and stretches with deep breathing.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation – Tense, then relax each muscle group one at a time.
  • Guided imagery – Picture yourself in a peaceful place free from pain.
  • Biofeedback – Use electronic sensors to learn to voluntarily control your body’s responses.

Get Enough Good Quality Sleep

Sleep is vital for controlling pain and allowing your body to heal and regenerate. But osteoarthritis can make getting a full night’s rest challenging. Pain and stiffness often worsen at night. Ensuring proper sleep hygiene helps manage discomfort and fatigue.

Aim for 7-9 hours of high-quality sleep per night. Keep your bedroom dark, cool and quiet. Limit screen time and avoid large meals before bedtime. Establish a calming pre-bed routine. Some people find taking a warm bath or using relaxation techniques helpful before bed.

Talk to your doctor if osteoarthritis frequently disrupts your slumber. They may suggest trying over-the-counter or prescription sleep aids for short-term use.

Tips for Better Sleep with Osteoarthritis

  • Use good sleeping posture – keep your spine in alignment
  • Try a new mattress that cradles pressure points
  • Apply a heating pad or ice pack to painful joints before bed
  • Ask your doctor about taking acetaminophen before bed to control nighttime pain
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol and heavy meals close to bedtime

Try Complementary Medicines

Some patients find relief from osteoarthritis pain and inflammation using complementary and alternative medicines. Always consult your physician before starting any new regimen. Research shows certain natural remedies may help control osteoarthritis symptoms:

Glucosamine and Chondroitin

These nutritional supplements may help rebuild cartilage and lubricate joints. Studies show mixed results on effectiveness. Give them at least 2 months to work.


Curcumin, the active compound in turmeric, has powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Take as a supplement or use turmeric liberally when cooking.


This compound found in chili peppers inhibits pain signals. Apply topical creams containing capsaicin to arthritic joints.


Massage improves circulation and relaxes tight muscles around affected joints. Use moderate pressure and communicate with your massage therapist.


Fine needles are inserted in specific body points to relieve pain. Acupuncture may temporarily reduce osteoarthritis inflammation and discomfort.

Use Good Body Mechanics

Avoiding movements that place extra stress on arthritic joints can alleviate pain and prevent further damage. Joint protection techniques minimize pressure on affected joints.

  • Use larger joints instead of smaller ones when possible
  • Avoid repetitive motions
  • Maintain proper posture when sitting, standing and moving
  • Keep items within easy reach to prevent excessive bending and twisting
  • Use wheeled carts to transport heavy items rather than carrying them
  • Avoid kneeling, squatting or crawling when hips or knees are affected

An occupational therapist can teach you proper joint protection techniques tailored to your individual needs.

Consider Surgery

If conservative treatments fail to adequately control osteoarthritis pain and restore function, surgery may be an option. Procedures like joint replacement and realignment can significantly improve quality of life in appropriate candidates.

Joint Replacement

During joint replacement surgery, damaged joint surfaces are removed and replaced with artificial components. Knee and hip replacements are most common and typically very effective for osteoarthritis.


In an osteotomy, surgeons realign parts of the joint that have been damaged. This helps redistribute body weight to healthier joint cartilage.


Surgeons insert a thin instrument with a camera through tiny incisions to trim or repair damaged tissue inside the joint. This minimally invasive procedure has a short recovery.

Discuss the risks and benefits of surgery thoroughly with your doctor. Proper patient selection and realistic expectations contribute to optimal outcomes.

Join a Support Group

Living with the challenges of osteoarthritis can be isolating. Connecting with others who understand your experience provides social support and encouragement. Arthritis support groups meet in person, by phone or online.

Support groups foster a sense of community. You can share struggles and successes, exchange practical tips and feel less alone. Many groups also offer arthritis education resources. Your doctor, hospital or community center can help you find one.

Tips for Finding an Arthritis Support Group

  • Search online directories like those from the Arthritis Foundation and CreakyJoints
  • Ask your physician or physical therapist for local recommendations
  • Check bulletin boards at libraries, community centers, places of worship, etc.
  • Search Facebook groups related to arthritis, chronic pain, disabilities, etc.
  • Seek groups specific to your type of arthritis or demographic

Set Realistic Goals and Pace Yourself

Osteoarthritis imposes new limitations that can be frustrating and disheartening. Regain a sense of purpose by setting reasonable goals and expectations. Define goals that are within your control rather than tying them to particular outcomes.

Focus on one goal at a time, like joining an exercise class or healthy cooking course. Break big goals into small, manageable steps to prevent being overwhelmed. Give yourself ample time to complete tasks and rest when needed.

Celebrate each accomplishment, no matter how small. Over time, achieving your aims will boost confidence, independence and emotional well-being.

Tips for Setting Achievable Goals

  • Make goals specific, measurable and time-bound
  • Schedule daily, weekly and monthly objectives
  • Prioritize important goals and break them down into steps
  • Build in flexibility – modify goals as abilities change
  • Reward yourself when you reach milestones


Osteoarthritis is a complex condition, but you can take charge using self-management strategies. Losing weight, exercising, using assistive devices, trying complementary treatments and setting realistic goals all empower you to live well with osteoarthritis. While symptoms may wax and wane, remaining positive and proactive will help you navigate each day.