Arthritis — the presence of inflammation or degeneration in a joint — is a common affliction, especially as we grow older. While there are many non-surgical treatment options that arthritis sufferers can explore, for some, orthopedic surgery may become a necessity.
Here’s how to tell when it’s time to seek the opinion of an orthopedic surgeon.
How arthritis affects joints
When you have arthritis, your cartilage and other joint structures start to break down. Normally, cartilage absorbs shock and protects the two bones that form a joint, allowing for smooth movement. In the absence of normal cartilage, the bones can rub together, causing damage, swelling, stiffness, decreased mobility and pain.
Depending on the severity and the area where the arthritis is located, people may experience chronic aching pain or even sharp, stabbing pain. In advanced cases, locking and catching also may be a problem. This occurs when the jagged ends of two bones come into contact and become momentarily stuck.
When should I seek help?
Arthritic pain that may require attention from a surgeon often comes on slowly over a period of years and may be described as an “achiness” in the joint area. That pain is especially triggered after prolonged activity. Pain also can arise from fractures, which are usually sustained during a fall or other traumatic event. Ligament or tendon injuries, as well as avascular necrosis (when the blood supply to your joint is interrupted) also can be sources of a sudden onset of pain.
Whether your pain has intensified over a period of years or days, those having difficulty walking or performing their everyday activities should consider an evaluation with an orthopedic surgeon. A conversation with a surgeon — particularly one who specializes in the injured area — may be helpful for figuring out the best treatment plan for improving your quality of life.
Can arthritis be treated without surgery?
For less severe cases of arthritis, there are many non-surgical ways to maintain movement and reduce pain. While arthritis isn’t curable, people of all ages can strive to keep their joints healthier. Of course, treatment should be individualized based on the severity of your arthritis, your activity level and expectations. Methods for treatment include:
- Maintain a healthy weight so as not to “overload” the joints — particularly the knee and hip joints
- Exercise regularly through activities such as yoga, Pilates, fitness classes, walking, weightlifting, swimming or cycling
- Engage in lower-impact exercises if you have joint damage already
- Follow a healthy diet that includes lots of fruits, vegetables, whole foods and anti-inflammatory foods, such as the spice turmeric
- Use both ice and heat to treat swelling and/or pain
- Undergo physical therapy to strengthen and stabilize the muscles around an arthritic joint
If you are unable to get relief from natural methods, you also can manage pain with over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs, corticosteroid joint injections or other non-surgical medical treatments. Consult your doctor prior to doing so. Also, only when nonoperative treatment is exhausted should you consider joint-replacement surgery.