Osteoarthritis afflicts nearly 21 million Americans, men and women alike. Depending on its severity, arthritis can be a minor annoyance or a disabling disease that takes over every aspect of your life.

Symptoms of osteoarthritis usually don't appear until you're in your 40s or 50s. Most people over the age of 60, in fact, would show some signs of arthritis on X-rays, although only a third will experience symptoms. Some health experts estimate that as many as 90 percent of us will get some form of osteoarthritis at some point in our lives.

In more severe cases, a doctor may prescribe medicine or even recommend surgery for this condition. However, for patients who have just recently noticed symptoms of osteoarthritis, or who have a mild case, there are some home remedies for osteoarthritis pain relief that may prove effective.

This page will provide an overview of the causes, symptoms, and conventional treatment methods for osteoarthritis before we move into a discussion of home remedies for osteoarthritis pain relief, namely glucosamine sulfate, on the following pages of this article.

What Causes Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis occurs as a result of the breakdown of the cartilage in the joints. In a normal joint, the ends of the bones are covered with cartilage: a durable, elastic tissue that protects the bones and allows the joint to move freely. Cartilage gets the oxygen and nutrients it needs by absorbing them, like a sponge, from the joint fluid (called synovial fluid). As the joint bends, waste products are squeezed out of the cartilage; as the joint relaxes, nutrients and oxygen are absorbed. (Controlled movement, therefore, benefits the joints.)

In osteoarthritis, the cartilage thins out and may even wear away, leaving areas where bones rub directly against each other. As a result, the edges of the bones may thicken and form bony swellings called spurs (medically known as osteophytes). Stiffness and dull pain in the joints, with little or no inflammation, are generally the result. These are the typical symptoms of osteoarthritis.

The weight-bearing joints (hips, knees, and spine) are most frequently involved in osteoarthritis. Other joints often affected are the finger joints closest to the tips of the fingers, which may develop bony knobs. The joint at the base of the thumb and the big-toe joint may also be affected. Osteoarthritis rarely affects the wrists, elbows, shoulders, ankles, or jaw. Although osteoarthritis may affect more than one joint at a time, the disease does not affect other systems or organs of the body.

Osteoarthritis is considered a chronic disease, but it may not necessarily get progressively worse, and many people with the condition are relatively free of symptoms. Few people are severely disabled by the disease.

Why Osteoarthritis Occurs

While a breakdown of the cartilage in the joints is essentially the source of the symptoms of osteoarthritis, it is not always clear why this breakdown occurs. Most often, the thinning of the cartilage is attributed to years of wear and tear and the inability of the body to repair the resulting damage.

Previous injury that causes inflammation in a joint can also make it more likely to be affected by osteoarthritis. Unusual stress on a joint, either through a repetitive activity -- such as typing or playing a sport -- or because of excess body weight, may bring about the changes associated with osteoarthritis, perhaps earlier than is typical.

Some individuals are born with a misalignment of their joints that leaves them prone to osteoarthritis. And in some cases, there appears to be a genetic component.

Diagnosing Arthritis

Diagnosing osteoarthritis can be difficult, partly because the disease's symptoms may be mistaken for those of other conditions, including injuries, muscle or spinal-disc problems, or even other forms of arthritis. X-rays and laboratory tests can help rule out other conditions. But perhaps the most valuable diagnostic tool available to doctors is the physical examination, including a medical history and a detailed discussion of the symptoms.

To help your doctor make a diagnosis, be prepared to tell him or her which part of your body hurts; what the pain feels like, when it began, and how long it lasts; what, if anything, seems to trigger the pain or make it worse; when and if you have stiffness or other symptoms; what activities you may have trouble doing; and what, if anything, helps to relieve your pain.

Conventional Relief

The best conventional treatment for osteo­arthritis generally involves prescribed exercises to keep the joints flexible, encourage nourishment of the cartilage, and strengthen the surrounding tissues; joint protection, often based on the suggestions of a physical or occupational therapist, to limit further damage; and, when necessary, both drug and nondrug measures to ease discomfort and decrease stiffness. Losing excess weight, eating a nutritionally balanced diet, and getting enough rest are also often part of the treatment prescription.

As noted previously, it is the movement of a joint that forces oxygen and nutrients into the cartilage and removes waste products, thus helping to keep the cartilage healthy. When the pain and stiffness of arthritis set in, however, moving the affected joint is the last thing on many patients' minds.

The tendency to limit the motion of an affected joint can actually aggravate the problem and may lead to even greater loss of mobility. While excessive or very strenuous activity may not be appropriate, gentle range-of-motion exercises can actually decrease stiffness and pain.

Range-of-motion exercises are used to put a joint through the full range of its natural motion without excessive stress. They are essential to any treatment plan for arthritis. Your doctor or a physical therapist can show you appropriate exercises or recommend an exercise class designed for people with arthritis.

Extremely important, too, is protecting arthritic joints from injury or excessive strain. This may boil down to simple techniques such as using your forearm, rather than your bent wrist and hand, to push open a door or placing heavy kitchen equipment on shelves at waist height.

Increasing knowledge of the needs of people with arthritis has also led to an abundance of products designed to make daily tasks easier on painful joints. For example, forks, spoons, knives, and other utensils with soft, built-up handles that make gripping easier are now available in many grocery and department stores. Even if your joints aren't currently painful enough to affect your grasping ability, such joint-friendly devices can limit strain and may help prevent progression of symptoms.

Additional measures to help ease the pain and stiffness of arthritis include heat and cold treatments. Hot showers or baths or heating pads may improve flexibility, especially before exercise or other physical activity. And cold packs can often help numb a particularly painful joint.

Medications for Osteoarthritis

If these measures don't give adequate pain relief, your doctor may recommend medication. Most often, it will be acetaminophen or a non­steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). Some NSAIDs, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen sodium, are available over the counter. Stronger NSAIDs, such as sulindac, indomethacin, tolmetin sodium, and fenoprofen calcium, are available only by prescription.

These medications can be quite effective in relieving joint pain. As with many other drugs, however, they can have some uncomfortable and even dangerous side effects, especially if you must take them on an ongoing basis.

Aspirin and other NSAIDs, for example, may irritate the stomach lining and cause severe internal bleeding in some people. Taken in large amounts over the long term, they can also cause kidney and liver damage. Some research even suggests that these drugs may actually inhibit cartilage repair and increase the progression of the disease.

The advent of COX-2 inhibitors, which are powerful inflammation-blocking drugs, seemed to herald a new era of treatment for people with arthritis. However, use of the drugs has been linked to increased risk of cardiovascular problems, including heart attacks and strokes, and most have been removed from the market.

Is Surgery for You?

If medications don't work to relieve your symptoms, or if your disease is severe, your doctor may recommend surgery to ease your pain. There are two main types of operations for arthritis.

The first is "clean-up" surgery to repair a damaged joint by removing debris, correcting a deformity, or fusing bones. In the second type of surgery, the arthritic joint is removed and replaced with an artificial one.

Thousands of people with arthritis have undergone surgery to get relief. However, in one of the first-ever studies to compare arthroscopic "clean-up" surgery to fake (placebo) surgery, this procedure was found to be useless. According to the study, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2002, simply squirting fluid into the knee joint worked every bit as good as performing the usual "clean-up" procedure. Most doctors are now avoiding recommending this surgery to patients.

And it's important to remember that all surgeries are difficult.

Glucosamine sulfate is one natural substance that has been shown useful for osteoarthritis pain relief. Continue to the next page to learn more.

For more information on understanding and treating arthritis, see:
  • To see all of our home remedies and the conditions they treat, go to our main Home Remedies page.
  • Visit our main Herbal Remedies page for information on all of our herbal remedies and the conditions they treat.
  • Learn about more treatments for arthritis that are found around the house at Home Remedies for Arthritis.
  • Find out which herbs may be helpful in treating arthritis when you visit our Herbal Remedies for Arthritis page.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.