With the baby boomers now in their 50s and 60s, the number of people with chronic joint pain is growing. About 43 million people have sought out medical advice for the condition — and women account for 58 percent (25 million) of these patients. It is likely that 23 million more have not been diagnosed.
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The truth is that it’s part of the normal aging process for our joints to wear. Cartilage grows until about age 25, then slowly wears over the rest of our lives. The rate of deterioration depends on factors like trauma (tears/breaks), wear and tear, genetics and weight.
Taking the first step
So, what can you do if you experience chronic joint pain? The first step is to try some of the many non-operative options. These include:
- Weight reduction
- Physical therapy
- Elastic sleeves or braces
- Medications (which may have side effects)
- Aspirin and NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Advil® or Motrin®)
- Acetaminophen, a mild pain reliever but not anti-inflammatory
- Prescription medications
Other non-operative options to discuss with your doctor include injections directly into the joint area:
- Intra-articular (in the joint) cortisone shots
- Viscosupplementation injections (a newer injection of a thick fluid specifically used for the knee joint)
- Lubricates and protects the joint
- Works for 75 percent of patients
- Offers relief for three months to one year
Natural remedies and supplements
In addition, some people try natural remedies, like glucosamine and chondroitin and shark cartilage. Although not proven effective, they are not harmful — and about one-third of people say they feel better when taking them. These supplements are not FDA-controlled and the active ingredients vary.
If these options don’t help, arthroscopic surgery to smooth off the cartilage on the surface of the bone, remove loose chips of cartilage or repair torn cartilage (meniscus) may provide relief.
And, when nothing else is working, it may be time to ask about knee or hip replacement. It is estimated that more than a million knee and hip replacements will be performed in the United States in 2013. Every patient is different. You should consult an orthopaedic surgeon to see if you are a candidate for this surgery.
After surgery, most patients say that they wish they had done it long ago. In fact, joint replacement works great for 90 percent of patients.
Recovery after a knee or hip replacement is fairly fast. Patients are usually weight bearing by the day after surgery and go home to rehabilitate by the third day. Six to eight weeks after surgery, most patients are walking without a cane and anxious to get back to normal activities — walking, golfing, biking, swimming and playing with their children or grandchildren. And today, most people who have joint replacements can expect them to last 20 years or more.
Robert Nickodem, MD, is an orthopaedic surgeon whose specialty interests include hip and knee replacement, knee arthroscopy and general orthopaedics. He sees patients at the Cleveland Clinic Mentor Medical Office Building. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Nickodem or any of our surgeons, call 440.312.6242.