There is no cure for arthritis. However, people can manage the pain and inflammation that the condition causes. Treatments include medication, surgery, and alternative therapies such as acupuncture.

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Arthritis is joint inflammation that occurs in various health conditions that affect the joints and the surrounding tissues.

In this article, we look at treatments for arthritis in the short and long term, alternative measures, and possible complications of leaving arthritis untreated. We also look at the causes, risk factors, and outlook for arthritis.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

Arthritis affects 58.5 million people in the United States. The condition can affect people of all ages but is more common in people over 65.

There is no cure for arthritis, but doctors can treat symptoms of the condition to make it more manageable.

Symptoms can range from mild to severe and may come and go over time. They may also become progressively worse and significantly affect daily life.

Symptoms that doctors aim to treat typically include:

There are many types of arthritis, including:

  • Osteoarthritis (OA): This is the most common type. In this type of arthritis, the cartilage within joints breaks down, which affects the bones. OA is degenerative, and people generally assume the effects of the condition are due to wear and tear over time. People often develop this type of arthritis in the:
    • knees
    • hands
    • hips
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA): This is an inflammatory autoimmune disease in which the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells, causing inflammation and pain. In RA, the immune system attacks many joints. RA commonly affects the:
    • knees
    • hands
    • wrists
    • eyes
    • heart
    • lungs
  • Psoriatic arthritis: This type is also an inflammatory autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks healthy cells. It affects the joints and skin, causing rashes and pain. People with the autoimmune skin disease psoriasis are the most likely to develop psoriatic arthritis.
  • Gout: In this type of inflammatory arthritis, people have too much uric acid, which builds up in the blood and forms crystals in the joints. The crystals can form painful lumps in joints and surrounding tissues. Pain from gout can be sudden and severe.

Read more about the common types of arthritis.

For short-term relief of symptoms such as pain and inflammation, treatment options include:

Medications

Various over-the-counter medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and analgesics, can help treat symptoms of arthritis.

NSAIDs reduce inflammation and pain and are available in oral and topical forms. Examples include ibuprofen and naproxen.

People also refer to analgesics as pain relievers. These medications can help alleviate pain but do not reduce inflammation. Examples include tramadol and acetaminophen.

Heat and cold

Doctors or physical therapists may recommend heat and cold therapy, which people also refer to as thermal modalities.

Heat can help to relieve stiff joints and increase blood flow, and cold can reduce inflammation.

Massage

According to the Arthritis Foundation, massage can be an effective therapy for symptoms of arthritis. Regular massage can help:

  • relieve pain and stiffness
  • increase mobility
  • decrease stress and anxiety

Electrical nerve stimulation

In electrical nerve stimulation, a person uses a device, such as a TENS machine, to send electrical impulses through the body. This method can relieve pain in some cases and is generally safe.

However, a person should consult a doctor before trying this treatment if they:

  • are pregnant
  • have an implanted device such as a pacemaker
  • have heart problems
  • have epilepsy

Acupuncture

While there is some anecdotal evidence that acupuncture provides arthritis pain relief, more research is necessary to determine whether those results are entirely due to the placebo effect.

Long-term treatments for the symptoms of arthritis include:

Prescription medications

A doctor may prescribe medications such as:

Hyaluronic acid therapy

Although they may not work for everyone, hyaluronic acid injections may provide symptom relief for people whose arthritis symptoms do not respond to treatment with NSAIDs. Research has found that hyaluronic acid can reduce pain and increase joint function in some cases.

Surgery

A doctor may suggest surgery if a person’s arthritis is severe and debilitating and does not respond to other therapies. Types of arthritis surgeries include:

  • Osteotomy: This involves removing or adding bone near a damaged joint to correct alignment.
  • Synovectomy: In this procedure, a surgeon removes inflamed tissue called synovium, which lines the joints.
  • Joint fusion: This involves joining bones together with rods or pins into a single joint.
  • Total joint replacement: In this procedure, surgeons remove the damaged joint and replace it with a prosthetic joint.

In addition to seeking treatment for arthritis, a person can take steps on their own to manage the condition. These can include:

  • Exercise: Regular exercise can help reduce pain, support bone health, and improve motor functions. It can also promote weight loss, which can help reduce strain on joints.
  • Diet: Eating a balanced diet can help a person maintain a moderate weight and provide nutrients that benefit bone health.
  • Joint protection: Choosing gentle activities on the joints, such as walking and swimming, and wearing protective equipment can help people avoid stressing the joints.

Read more about remedies for arthritis.

If a person does not receive treatment for arthritis, they may have a higher risk of developing various complications. People with RA may develop complications, including:

  • Inflammation: Inflammation can spread to organs and tissues. This can cause various health problems and can even become life threatening. It may affect the:
    • heart
    • lungs
    • eyes
    • blood vessels
  • Joint damage: This can be permanent and significant and may require surgery.
  • Cervical myelopathy: This condition leads to dislocated joints at the top of the spine and can cause serious issues with mobility.
  • Cardiovascular disease: This category includes conditions that affect the heart or blood vessels, such as stroke and heart attack.
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome: This condition results from compression of the nerves that control sensation and movement in the hands. A person may experience tingling, numbness, and pain in their hands.

Individuals may be able to avoid some causes and risk factors of arthritis, while others are beyond a person’s control. With help, people may be able to reduce their risk by stopping smoking, maintaining a moderate weight, and learning ways of managing stress.

Risk factors beyond a person’s control include:

  • genetic factors
  • age — people who are older are most at risk
  • gender — females are more likely than males to develop arthritis
  • environmental factors such as smoke or viruses

Read more about risk factors for RA.

Arthritis has no cure, but many treatments are available to help people manage and reduce symptoms of the condition. Treatments vary depending on the type and severity of arthritis.

Possible treatments include medications, heat and cold therapy, massage, acupuncture, and surgery.

Without proper treatment, a person with arthritis may have an increased risk of complications such as cardiovascular disease, joint damage, and widespread inflammation. With treatment, a person can manage the symptoms and have a better quality of life.