These days it seems like everyone is interested in the more natural choice, whether it’s buying organic produce, biking to work instead of driving, or taking supplements for their health instead of prescriptions. It’s no different when it comes to arthritis treatment. There are a lot of options for your joint health, yet while medication is considered one of the most primary lines of defense, many patients still look for more natural alternatives.
A Closer Look at Arthritis
Before getting into different treatment options for arthritis, it’s important to understand first what exactly arthritis is, as well as the cause of the continued degeneration of the joints that occurs once arthritis has developed.
In a normal, healthy knee, the bones are covered with a slippery white substance called cartilage. This slick surface ensures that the ends of the bones glide against each other smoothly and easily when bending or straightening joints. A special lubricating fluid is also present in the knee and other joints, to further encourage easy motion.
There are two environmental factors that contribute to the degeneration of knee joint health:
- The normal fluid that nourishes and lubricates the cartilage becomes thinner and less effectual in an arthritic knee.
- Every day, a few of the cartilage cells in the joints die off and new ones are grown to replace them, just like cells everywhere throughout the body. However, in an arthritic knee, the stem cells that should repair and replace the cartilage cells cannot keep up with the cartilage wear.
This combination of reduced healthy cell replacement plus thinner, weaker fluid in the joints causes the cartilage to degenerate more rapidly than it would in a non-arthritic joint. Eventually, the bone is exposed, causing friction and pain in response to normal joint movement.
Treatment options for arthritis depend upon a number of factors, including the degree of arthritis present in the patient and the symptoms experienced by the patient. These two elements may not be connected, as some patients experience a lot more pain in response to mild cartilage degradation, while others may have significant arthritic wear with minimal discomfort. Because of the subjective nature of arthritis progression and symptoms, it’s important to customize treatment to the individual rather than basing it solely off X-ray results or MRI scans.
In the early stages of arthritis, physical therapy, oral anti-inflammatories and the occasional cortisone injection to the affected joint may be more than enough to improve symptoms. As the disease progresses, other treatments come into play. The primary approaches used by orthopedic doctors for treating patients with moderate and severe arthritis fall into two categories:
- Category 1: The patient is treated in an effort to decrease the pain and slow down the progression of the arthritic wear. Treatments in Category 1 include viscosupplementation (to replace joint fluid) and platelet rich plasma therapy to nourish the existing cartilage.
- Category 2: While the aim is still to decrease discomfort, cartilage replacement is also a goal in Category 2 treatments, such as stem cell therapy. Stem cells are collected from bone marrow and fatty tissue, and are then combined with platelet rich plasma to aid in growing new cartilage. Unlike Category 1 treatments, the Category 2 approach can actually help restore normalcy to the joint.
For both Category 1 and Category 2 patients, weight loss may be recommended, especially for patients with arthritis in a weight-bearing joint. Strengthening of the surrounding supportive muscles is also important, along with wearing an unloader brace for more even impact distribution if needed.