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Managing Osteoarthritis

man holding his painful left knee

Although osteoarthritis (OA) is one of the leading causes of disability in Canada, it’s often difficult for people struggling with OA to access helpful information about the disease and how to manage it.


Osteoarthritis involves inflammation and breakdown of the cartilage, or padding, in our joints, and the bone underneath. Once thought of as a fairly straightforward “wear and tear” condition, we now know that OA develops for much more complex reasons, including past joint injuries, genetics, changes in the nervous system, and levels of inflammation in the body (which are impacted by diet, sleep, stress, physical activity, age, chronic disease, and weight). The good news is, understanding more of the factors that contribute to OA pain gives us a lot more options for reducing the pain and stiffness people with OA experience than we used to have.


Unfortunately, because so many people have a “wear and tear” understanding of OA, people are often under the impression that once a joint is worn out, the only thing that can help it is joint replacement surgery. People also tend to avoid exercise and movement, assuming that these would increase wear and tear, making their OA worse.


Interestingly, research shows that properly prescribed exercise is actually very effective for reducing OA pain. This is because most types of exercise don’t cause damaging wear and tear to our joints – they nourish our cartilage cells and reduce systemic inflammation. Unfortunately, even when people with OA are encouraged to exercise, they often wind up experiencing increased pain when they try new movements, or larger amounts of exercise than their bodies are used to. This is because when a person has chronic pain, their nervous system changes to become more sensitive to stress and strain – so movements that wouldn’t normally hurt become painful. Many people have success working around this by slowly introducing new movements and gradually increasing the intensity of exercises, but unfortunately, many others are scared off when they try something new, wind up with more pain than they started with, and don’t have a reassuring guide who can help them ease into exercise at a pace their body is ready for.


If exercise isn’t your cup of tea, research also shows that other lifestyle changes can be very effective for reducing OA pain. Making “anti-inflammatory” dietary changes, improving sleep, managing stress, and losing weight (even a small amount) can all significantly improve pain.


If you’re struggling with OA and are looking at a long wait time for surgery, or not planning to have it, rest assured that there are other effective treatment strategies available. Talk to your favourite healthcare provider about strategies you can use to reduce inflammation, and/or improve your diet, sleep, stress management, activity level, and overall health. There are lots of changes you can make that can make big changes to the pain you experience.

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