When Arthritis Pain Is Too Much, You Have Options

May is Arthritis Awareness Month, a month dedicated to educating people—and debunking myths—about one of the most common conditions U.S. adults experience 

One of the most common myths about this condition is that it’s an inevitable consequence of aging. The truth is that arthritis is not something you must accept as you get older; instead, it is something you can manage.  

Understanding arthritis 

More than 100 types of arthritis exist, the most common being osteoarthritis (OA). OA is a degenerative joint disease that affects the entire joint—the bone and cartilage as well as ligaments and tissues—causing inflammation, stiffness and pain. 

Other types of arthritis can fall into a category known as inflammatory arthritis. These types include rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks healthy tissue, and ankylosing spondylitis, which causes inflammation in the spine and often develops in a person’s late teens and 20s.  

The First Steps to Managing Inflammation 

“It’s important to reiterate that inflammation is at the core of each type of arthritis,” says Philip Petrou, M.D., board-certified anesthesiologist and pain medicine physician at Weill Cornell Medicine. “With osteoarthritis, it’s the breakdown of cartilage that leads to inflammation. With rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system is on overdrive.” 

Thus, when you see a doctor for arthritis, they typically start by focusing on ways to address the inflammation causing your symptoms. 

Typically, doctors begin treating pain from OA with nonsurgical methods, such as ice, heat, bracing and physical therapy. 

“If the pain is mostly coming from osteoarthritis or degeneration of the joints, the more conservative or noninvasive management is usually our first line,” says Tiffany Lin, M.D., board-certified anesthesiologist and pain medicine physician at Weill Cornell Medicine. “For example, heat and cold—heat helps with relaxation, increasing circulation to the area, and ice causes vasoconstriction, which is helpful in decreasing swelling and pain.”  

Innovative Pain Management When You Need More Help 

When conservative treatments don’t provide the relief you need, newer therapies that work in conjunction with these methods may help alleviate your pain and help you avoid surgery.  

One therapy showing promise, according to Dr. Petrou, is an injectable treatment called viscosupplementation. The injections contain hyaluronic acid that lubricates bones, allowing them to move easily against each other and also functions as a shock absorber for joint loads. 

Another innovation is radiofrequency ablation, which targets the nerves that cause discomfort. The treatment essentially burns nerve ends to block pain signals.  

A third option, peripheral nerve stimulation also interrupts pain signals, except electricity, not heat, is used to disrupt the signals. 

A Personalized Approach to Pain Management 

Whether you have OA or a type of inflammatory arthritis, you need care tailored to your diagnosis and lifestyle. 

“Each patient is different, and we want to approach each person individually,” Dr. Petrou says. “We work with patients to assess how they benefit from any treatment, how much pain relief they experience and how the treatment has impacted their function.” 

Is arthritis pain affecting your quality of life? Find a doctor at Weill Cornell Medicine who can help.