Written by Helen Chu, MS RDN, US Registered Dietitian

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease, a common form of arthritis.  The degeneration process develops over time, involving wear and tear on joints and a gradual breakdown of cartilage.  When the cartilage continues to breakdown, the direct grinding between bones causes undue pain, swelling and stiffness in the affected areas.  Inflammation of joints may appear in the knees, hips and fingers, resulting in loss of mobility and dysfunction of organs.

Weight management, together with appropriate exercise, can help relieve the above symptoms.

Weight Management

Being overweight or obese increases the risk of developing osteoarthritis.  Weight plays an important role on joints. Excessive weight increases the wear-and-tear of the weight bearing of joints, such as knees and hips, and hastens the breakdown of cartilage. Reduction of weight can significantly alleviate the symptoms. The losing of one pound of body weight reduces about 4 pounds of pressure on the knee or hip. Studies suggest that a 5% -10% loss in weight can ease the pressure on joints, hence reduces pain, inflammation and improves mobility in, for example, walking.   Discuss with your doctor on your weight status and reduce weight accordingly.

Healthy Eating  

Healthy eating habits throughout life span can help maintain desirable body weight, hence reducing the chance of developing chronic diseases.  The many health benefits of Mediterranean diet are well supported by research. The Mediterranean diet focuses on fresh fruits and vegetable, whole grains, legumes (beans, lentils). Other key features are the choosing of fish, poultry and only small amount of red meat, and replacing butter with olive oil.  The benefits include increased intake of fiber, monounsaturated fat and omega 3 fatty acid, while reduction in saturated fat, added sugar and processed meat. The Mediterranean diet is not necessarily a weight loss diet, as the portion size and amount is not specified. A Registered Dietitian can guide you on a meal plan that includes portion control and the amount to maintain or lose weight.  

Exercise Program

It is well established that regular exercise as a lifelong habit has an effect on the overall health. For individuals with osteoarthritis, a good exercise program keeps the joints moving and muscles strong, hence improves flexibility and mobility.  However, some of us are still hesitant to do exercise to avoid aggravation of joint pain. Unfortunately, this will only further weaken the muscles and stiffen joints.

Check with your doctor before engaging in any exercise program to avoid creating further pain and muscle injury. In addition, consult a physiotherapist to draw up an individualized program which will strengthen your muscles around the joints and increase range of motion.

Regular gentle exercise such as swimming, walking, tai chi can be helpful.  Besides swimming, water aerobics is also a great exercise. The water buoyancy supports the body’s weight and reduces stress on the joints.  If possible, exercise in a heated pool to provide added warmth to the body which helps soothe the sore joints. Tai Chi and other exercise with gentle  movement have low impact on the knees or joints.

Nutrition supplements -   Glucosamine, Chondroitin sulfate – are proved to have no effect

Neither supplement is recommended by American Arthritis Foundation for treatment of arthritis. The benefit of these supplements is not supported by solid scientific evidence.  Clinical trials conclude little benefit from glucosamine and chondroitin in reducing pain, stiffness or in slowing down the progression of problem.

Caution:  Glucosamine and chondroitin interact with blood thinning drug -  warfarin. Consult the doctor on the use of these supplements. Glucosamine is made from shellfish shells, so if you are allergic to shellfish, you should avoid glucosamine.

Weight  loss (if  you are overweight) coupled  with an exercise program are effective therapies  to manage the symptoms of arthritis and slow down the progression of the problem.  One should not overemphasize the importance of healthy eating habits. Desirable body weight and regular exercise may lessen pain in joints, maintain muscle strength, and  ultimately helps the joints to keep functioning and improve the quality of life.