When to see a doctor about joint pain

Most people will experience joint pain at some point in life and, according to pharmacist Phil Day, musculoskeletal wear and tear is one of the most common health niggles.

Arthritis and other joint conditions affect millions of people in Australia, causing aches, pain and sometimes swelling and stiffness, which for some people can have a severe impact on day-to-day life.

“The two most common types are osteoarthritis [OA] and rheumatoid arthritis [RA],” says Mr Day.

It’s important to seek individual advice from your doctor or physio, especially if you have an acute injury, flare-up or severe ongoing symptoms.

Generally speaking though, Mr Day says there are lifestyle changes that can often help. Here’s a closer look.

Read: Living with arthritis? Tips to manage stiffness

Why do we get joint pain?
While there are many possible causes, Mr Day explains that joint pain is usually a result of injury or arthritis. In older people, joint pain that gets steadily worse is usually a sign of osteoarthritis, associated with wear and tear.

“Osteoarthritis can affect any joint in the body, but is normally seen in the large weight-bearing joints of the hip, knee and spine, and in the smaller joints of the fingers,” says Mr Day.

“It may result from an inherited weakness in cartilage – the rubbery-type tissue that separates the bones – but lifestyle is important too, and there are steps you can take to protect your joints.”

Rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease, is less common but still affects more than 450,000 people in Australia. That’s around 1.9 per cent of the population. “It’s an autoimmune condition in which the antibodies that normally attack bacteria and viruses target the cells covering the joints, leaving them inflamed and sore,” says Mr Day.

Rates of rheumatoid arthritis are slightly higher for women (2.3 per cent) than men (1.5 per cent). It’s most common in people aged 75 years or over. If you suspect you may have RA, it’s important to see a doctor so, if necessary, you can be referred for tests and appropriate support.

On top of this, strains, sprains and other injuries can be a root cause of joint pain too, possibly interfering with your daily movement and causing issues with mobility.

What can people do to treat sore joints?
If you are affected by OA, Mr Day says painkillers such as paracetamol are useful for handling any pain and discomfort. “If that’s not effective, try a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug [NSAID] like ibuprofen,” Mr Day suggests.

“Topical NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen gel, are often helpful for hand or knee arthritis, while corticosteroid injections into the joint are also sometimes prescribed by a GP to fight inflammation.”

Read: Orthopaedic surgeon tells how to lower your risk of arthritis

Some research suggests that taking glucosamine and chondroitin supplements daily can be useful for joint pain. Both substances have anti-inflammatory effects and are the building blocks of normal cartilage, which helps to protect joints.

Lifestyle changes can be helpful too. It might sound counterintuitive, but a bit of light exercise may help to relieve some of the annoying symptoms of joint troubles. Low impact movement, such as swimming, can be a great option as it can help to strengthen muscles around the joints without putting pressure on the area.

Essentially, the water supports your body, meaning there’s less strain on the skeletal system as you exercise.

There can be benefits to switching between hot and cold therapies for joint pain too. Hot treatment can help to reduce stiffness, and cold treatment can help to reduce swelling and inflammation. For an inexpensive home remedy, try applying a heat pack to any tender joint areas, followed by an ice compress.

Switching up your diet can sometimes be useful if you’re dealing with the pain on a regular basis. Healthily losing excess weight, if this is a factor, can help take the physical strain off of joints. Plus, there’s a growing body of evidence that the active ingredient in turmeric, called curcumin, has soothing properties for arthritis. It’s a natural anti-inflammatory that can be added to meals and help to reduce joint pain. You could add the golden-hued spice onto curries, sprinkle it onto roasted sweet potato, or even create a hot drink with your choice of milk.

Read: Can turmeric improve your health?

Finally, a physical therapist can develop a movement plan to help keep you active. Usually, they’ll give you tailored exercises to strengthen the muscles around a painful joint.

When to speak to a doctor
It’s important to get medical help right away if the pain is so intense that’s it’s difficult to go about your normal life, or you feel like you can no longer use the joint. And always get things checked if you’ve had an injury that’s become very swollen and painful, or if you also have other worrying symptoms at the same time.

Book in with a GP if your joint symptoms last three days or more, or you’re experiencing multiple painful episodes in a month. You might need to see a specialist, and your doctor may refer you to a rheumatologist, who specialises in diseases that involve bones, muscles and joints.

A trained medical expert can give you the best advice and course of treatment for your joint pain.

Do you struggle with joint pain? Have you found any ways to combat it? Why not share your tips in the comments section below?

– With PA

Health disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

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