Medical Compass: What is the best way to manage osteoarthritis pain?
Diet and exercise together are the key to success
By David Dunaief, M.D.
If you suffer from osteoarthritis, you know it can affect your quality of life and make it difficult to perform daily activities. Osteoarthritis (OA) most often affects the knees, hips and hands and can affect your mood, mobility, and sleep quality.
Common first-line medications that treat arthritis pain are acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen or naproxen. Unfortunately, these medications have side effects, especially with long-term use. Also, while they might relieve your immediate symptoms of pain and inflammation, they don’t slow osteoarthritis’ progression.
Fortunately, there are approaches you can use to ease your pain without reaching for medications. Some can even help slow the progression of your OA or even reverse your symptoms.
What role does weight play?
Weight management is a crucial component of any OA pain management strategy. In a study involving 112 obese patients, those who lost weight reported easing of knee symptoms (1). Even more exciting, the study authors observed disease modification, with a reduction in the loss of cartilage volume around the medial tibia. Those who gained weight saw the opposite effect.
The relationship was almost one-to-one; for every one percent of weight lost, there was a 1.2 mm3 preservation of medial tibial cartilage volume, while the opposite occurred when participants gained weight. A reduction of tibial cartilage is often associated with the need for a knee replacement.
Does vitamin D help?
In a randomized controlled trial (RCT), vitamin D provided no OA symptom relief, nor any disease-modifying effects (2). This two-year study of almost 150 men and women raised blood levels of vitamin D on average to 36 ng/ml, which is considered respectable. Researchers used MRI and X-rays to track their results.
In another study of 769 participants, ages 50-80, researchers found that low vitamin D levels – below 25 nmol/l led to increased OA knee pain over the five-year study period and hip pain over 2.4 years (3). The researchers postulate that supplementing vitamin D might reduce pain in those who are deficient, but that it will likely have no effect on others.
How does dairy factor into OA?
With dairy, specifically milk, there is conflicting information. Some studies show benefits, while others show that it may contribute to the inflammation that makes osteoarthritis pain feel worse.
In the Osteoarthritis Initiative study, researchers looked specifically at joint space narrowing that occurs in those with affected knee joints (4). Results showed that low-fat (1 percent) and nonfat milk may slow the progression of osteoarthritis in women. Compared to those who did not drink milk, patients who did saw significantly less narrowing of knee joint space over a 48-month period.
The result curve was interesting, however. For those who drank from fewer than three glasses a week up to 10 glasses a week, the progression of joint space narrowing was slowed. However, for those who drank more than 10 glasses per week, there was less beneficial effect. There was no benefit seen in men or with the consumption of higher fat products, such as cheese or yogurt.
However, the study was observational and had significant flaws. First, the 2100 patients were only asked about their milk intake at the study’s start. Second, patients were asked to recall their weekly milk consumption for the previous 12 months before the study began — a challenging task.
On the flip side, a study of almost 39,000 participants from the Melbourne Collaborative Cohort Study found that increases in dairy consumption were associated with increased risk of total hip replacements for men with osteoarthritis (5).
Getting more specific, a published analysis of the Framingham Offspring Study found that those who consumed yogurt had statistically significant lower levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6), a marker for inflammation, than those who didn’t eat yogurt, but that this was not true with milk or cheese consumption (6).
Would I recommend consuming low-fat or nonfat milk or yogurt? Not necessarily, but I might not dissuade osteoarthritis patients from yogurt.
Does exercise help with OA pain?
Diet and exercise trumped the effects of diet or exercise alone in a well-designed study (7). In an 18-month study, patients with osteoarthritis of the knee who lost at least 10 percent of their body weight experienced significant improvements in function and a 50 percent reduction in pain, as well as reduction in inflammation. This was compared to those who lost a lower percent of their body weight.
Researchers used biomarker IL6 to measure inflammation. The diet and exercise group and the diet-only group lost significantly more weight than the exercise-only group, 23.3 pounds and 19.6 pounds versus 4 pounds. The diet portion consisted of a meal replacement shake for breakfast and lunch and then a vegetable-rich, low-fat dinner. Low-calorie meals replaced the shakes after six months. The exercise regimen included one hour of a combination of weight training and walking “with alacrity” three times a week.
To reduce pain and possibly improve your OA, focus on lifestyle modifications. The best effects shown are with weight loss and with a vegetable-rich diet. In terms of low-fat or nonfat milk, the results are controversial, at best. For yogurt, the results suggest it may be beneficial for osteoarthritis, but stay on the low end of consumption, since dairy can increase inflammation.
(1) Ann Rheum Dis. 2015 Jun;74(6):1024-9. (2) JAMA. 2013;309:155-162. (3) Ann. Rheum. Dis. 2014;73:697–703. (4) Arthritis Care Res online. 2014 April 6. (5) J Rheumatol. 2017 Jul;44(7):1066-1070. (6) Nutrients. 2021 Feb 4;13(2):506. (7) JAMA. 2013;310:1263-1273.
Dr. David Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com or consult your personal physician.