How Arthritis Works

Nonsurgical Arthritis Treatment, from Aspirin to Acupuncture

A doctor applies herbal medicine to a patient's back at a traditional Chinese medicine clinic in Beijing. 
A doctor applies herbal medicine to a patient's back at a traditional Chinese medicine clinic in Beijing. 
Cui Hao/ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

Fortunately for those suffering from arthritis, there are treatments available that can ease pain, swelling and discomfort as well as limit damage to the joints. One readily available treatment won't require a trip to the doctor: good old-fashioned weight loss. Through diet and exercise, you can shed excess pounds that add stress and strain to already overstressed joints.

Eat a well-balanced diet, rich in fruits, vegetables and "good" fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, as found in nuts, fish, canola oil and sunflower oil). Vitamin C -- readily available in orange juice -- has been shown to slow the progression of osteoarthritis, while vitamin D is important for bone strength. Omega-3 fatty acids help suppress inflammation and can be found in various fish, as well as tofu and flaxseed.

When you go for a workout, avoid strenuous or jarring activities that may exacerbate pain. Stretch and warm up before exercising, and stretch and cool down when you're done. Give yourself plenty of time to rest and don't push yourself too hard, but try to get regular amounts of light to moderate exercise. Swimming is one activity that is both easy on the joints and a great cardiovascular workout.

As far as treatment goes, there are over-the-counter products that can help with arthritis pain. Topical applications (gels) can produce hot or cold sensations that can diminish your awareness of discomfort. Topical analgesics (or "pain rubs") can provide relief by allowing your skin to absorb salicylates, also found in aspirin. Cold packs and paraffin wax dips might help you feel better, too.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) reduce inflammation by lowering the level of prostaglandins (which are similar to hormones and cause inflammation) in the body. NSAIDS, which include aspirin and ibuprofen, are commonly used to treat arthritis, and they were long viewed as the first treatment option that should be explored. However, rheumatoid arthritis does most of its damage to your joints in the first three years or so. Doctors now prefer to use more powerful drugs early on, to prevent or limit the first large wave of damage. Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs ) -- which include methotrexate, gold and sulfasalazine -- actually change the way your immune system works, suppressing it in a way that still isn't fully understood. DMARDs can greatly reduce the amount of joint damage caused by certain forms of arthritis, most notably rheumatoid arthritis.

Arthritis pre-dates modern medicine, of course, and so do many of its treatments, such as meditation, acupuncture and fasting to remove impurities. Some patients swear by chiropractic treatment, while others seek out nutritional supplements, like glucosamine and chondroitin, to relieve discomfort. Many modern medical treatments, such as DMARDs, involve processes that aren't fully understood, and so do "alternative" treatments. People suffering from arthritis should talk to a wide range of medical specialists to find a treatment option that is right for them.

We'll discuss surgical treatments in the next section.