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Managing osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis treatment can help you manage pain, prevent or delay complications, prevent disease progression and improve or maintain your function and quality of life. Keep reading to learn more about this condition and make informed decisions about what to do, and how to do it.

7 min read

Active self-management

If you or someone you care for has osteoarthritis, self-management and patient education are important. Having the right information, skills and solutions can help you to manage your condition. 

This includes techniques to deal with problems such as pain and fatigue, appropriate exercises for maintaining and improving strength and flexibility, healthy eating, and safe and effective use of medicines.

People who take part in self-management programs report greater confidence in their ability to manage their arthritis. They also suffer from less fatigue, depressed mood, anxiety, and frustration or worry about their health.

Active self-management has a number of important elements.

  • Activity and exercise
  • Healthy diet and weight
  • Pain management
  • Life balance
  • Joint protection
  • Emotional support
  • Good relationships with health professionals

Be active

Regular exercise is proven to be one of the most effective treatments for arthritis. It can help decrease pain, fatigue and stress, and improve mobility and flexibility of joints.

Low-impact exercises, with less weight or force going through your joints, are usually most comfortable and safe. These include walking, exercising in water, Tai Chi, Pilates, cycling and dancing.

It's important to choose exercise that you find enjoyable, such as dancing

Everyone’s fitness level and limitations will be different so start with activities that suit your condition, health and lifestyle. Generally you will need to do a mix of flexibility, muscle strengthening, and aerobic fitness exercises. 

It may be useful to see a physiotherapist or exercise physiologist for advice. See the Health direct service directory to find services near you or visit the Australian Physiotherapy Association or Exercise and Sports Science Australia.

Eat a healthy diet and manage your weight

Research confirms that maintaining a healthy weight can help stop your osteoarthritis from getting worse as well as lessen pain and disability. Even small amounts of weight loss are beneficial if you are overweight. For example, weight loss of about 5% (about 5 kg for a person weighing 100 kg) significantly reduced pain and physical disability in one study. 

You should aim for at least a 5% weight reduction over 20 weeks.

For every kilo of body weight lost, there is up to a 4 kg reduction in the load exerted on the knee.

  • There is no diet that will cure osteoarthritis. See the Healthy eating information sheet.
  • Eat for health provides advice regarding the Australian dietary guidelines and practical advice and education to encourage Australians to make positive changes towards a healthy diet.
  • A free healthy lifestyle program is available from My Healthy Balance. Do the program by yourself or with a friend, partner or colleague.
  • Download the Healthy weight guide, free from the Department of Health, to help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight using information and tools.

Learn ways to manage pain

Living with pain can be one of the hardest parts of having arthritis.

Pain, stress, fatigue (tiredness) and depression all affect each other. For example, people who feel depressed or anxious have been found to be more sensitive to pain. This can make your pain feel worse, which can lead to a continuing cycle of fatigue and depression.

Mindfulness activities, such as meditation, have been shown to lessen arthritis pain

Being in pain may limit some of the things you do, but it doesn’t have to control your life. For many people the pain cycle can be broken by using a range of strategies including mind techniques such as relaxation and mindfulness-based stress reduction, acupuncture, and pain-relieving medicines.

Research shows that treating depression with mind-based treatments and/or antidepressants reduces not only depression symptoms but also arthritis pain.

Changing your thoughts about pain can change how your body responds to pain. Psychological approaches such as cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), mindfulness and hypnotherapy can be useful in improving pain management.

The following resources and tools may be useful in helping prevent or manage anxiety or depression related to pain, or to develop coping strategies for living with pain.

  • Download the Dealing with pain fact sheet from the Arthritis Australia website.
  • The myjointpain website provides tools to assist individuals to manage and track their joint pain.
  • eCentre Pain course is a free online course designed to provide you with up-to-date information about chronic pain and practical skills for managing chronic pain. (For adults aged 18 and older, with chronic pain for more than 6 months and symptoms of stress, anxiety, low mood and depression.)
  • For people who have lived with pain for more than three months, Take charge (of pain) offers follow-up support to assist with overcoming barriers to pain management.
  • The Pain Management Network website has a range of video episodes for you to work through to help you manage your pain.
  • The Australian Pain Management Association provides a range of support, including a national network of Pain Support Groups and a wide range of education and training programs for people living with pain, their families and people working in the health and community sectors. Call the Pain Link telephone helpline (1300 340 357) for pain support.
  • The Pain Toolkit helps people all over the world self-manage persistent pain.
  • To find a psychologist who can help with CBT, relaxation and mindfulness techniques, contact the Australian Psychological Society.

Find out more about chronic pain.

Balance your life

Many people with arthritis experience fatigue, no matter what they have been doing or how much sleep they get. There are many possible causes of fatigue, including pain (which can also affect sleep), certain medicines, muscle weakness and wasting, or depression.

Carefully planning and organisation of activities (pacing) can help you make the most of your energy. Some simple tips include:

  • Try to plan your day so that you can switch between periods of activity and periods of rest.
  • When you know you have a large task to do, such as preparing a meal or cleaning a room, plan ahead and break the job into smaller tasks. Then work on completing the tasks one at a time, and follow each with a rest break.
  • Try to prioritise jobs. Do the hardest jobs when you are feeling your best.
  • Download the Saving energy fact sheet from the Arthritis Australia website for information on ways to make daily tasks easier and take pressure off joints affected by arthritis.

Protect your joints

Many gadgets and aids can make your daily activities simpler and less tiring. These aim to protect your joints by reducing the effort you have to put in. Examples include:

  • ergonomic knives to make cutting and slicing easier
  • adapted cutlery and cooking utensils to allow easy gripping
  • equipment to help with opening jars or bottles, and turning on taps
  • equipment to make dressing and showering easier (such as long-handled sponges and shoe horns for reaching your feet)
  • trolleys, walkers and canes
  • braces, supports, and shoe insoles.
Use trolleys to make carrying things easier on your joints

A helpful guide is At home with arthritis: simple steps for managing in the home. Developed by Arthritis Australia, this brochure provides information about the many ways people can protect their joints from pain and strain and also make jobs around the home easier to manage.

An occupational therapist (OT) can show you ways to simplify tasks and advise you on suitable aids and equipment. You will need a referral from your doctor to see an OT in the public system (such as at a community health centre). These services are usually free or low cost.

Find an OT on the Occupational Therapy Australia website or by
calling 1300 682 878.

Acknowledge your feelings and seek support

As with other chronic illnesses, arthritis can make people more likely to experience depression and anxiety. Up to a third of people with arthritis may be clinically depressed. Anxiety is more common in people living with arthritis than those without arthritis and is more common than depression in people with arthritis. When both conditions occur together, day-to-day work, study and social life are often affected.

We also know that people whose arthritis is well controlled are less likely to be depressed than people whose arthritis is not well controlled. Similarly people without depression achieve better control of their arthritis than people with depression.

The symptoms of anxiety and depression can be treated along with those of arthritis so you can live as well as possible. Be aware of these feelings and get help if they start affecting your daily life.

Psychological treatments can help change your thinking patterns and improve your coping skills so you’re better equipped to deal with life’s stresses and conflicts.

By learning adaptive coping skills such as relaxation, distraction, planning and routine, and problem solving, you may be able to reduce the pain experience, improve day-to-day functioning and generally cope better with chronic pain.

Antidepressant medication is sometimes used along with psychological therapies to treat moderate to severe depression and some anxiety conditions.

Regular outdoor exercise can build both mental and physical fitness

Exercise is still key. Exercise will help you build your physical fitness, and it has also been shown to help build your mental fitness. Being active and regularly exercising helps reduce the symptoms of depression.

Talk to your GP if you think you might benefit from professional help.

Download the Arthritis and emotional wellbeing information sheet from the Arthritis Australia website.

See your doctor for treatment and advice

Early diagnosis and professionally guided management is critical to maintaining a good quality of life, particularly for people with more severe osteoarthritis, or other illnesses along with osteoarthritis.

Your GP can:

  • make a diagnosis and prescribe medicines if required
  • check for any physical health problems or medicines that may be contributing to your condition or might affect your treatment
  • provide information and discuss available treatments, taking your preferences into account
  • refer you to an exercise professional who can help you with ways to manage your condition
  • work with you to draw up a Mental Health Treatment Plan if you are eligible for a Medicare rebate for psychological treatment, or refer you to a mental health specialist
  • provide support, brief counselling or, in some cases, more specialised psychological therapy
  • provide information and support to family members, if you agree
  • schedule regular appointments to check how you are going.

If your doctor prepares a GP Management Plan or a Team Care Arrangement to help manage your osteoarthritis or another chronic condition, you may be eligible to claim some benefits for services provided by other health professionals through the MBS.  

7 min read