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How to Arm Yourself Against Arthritis

Myth: "Nobody needs a diagnosis just for aching joints."

Reality: You need to know the cause -- not all achy joints are OA. "Several conditions that mimic arthritis, such as tendinitis and bursitis, can be mistaken for OA," says Patience H. White, M.D., vice president for public health with the Arthritis Foundation. "If you don't have an accurate diagnosis, you could take longer to heal, suffer long-term joint stiffness or not receive the appropriate treatment."

For instance, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease that involves multiple joints, leads to stiffness that lasts all day as opposed to the morning creakiness of OA. With RA, receiving the appropriate drugs early on can decrease joint inflammation and slow the course of the disease to prevent joint deformity.

Myth: "Any regular doctor is fine for managing arthritis pain."

Reality: A specialist may offer more treatment options and better care. Rheumatologists, who focus on joint, muscle and bone diseases, have more experience in recommending drugs and dosing regimens specific to your aches and pains. For example, not all primary care doctors do injections of corticosteroids or hyaluronic acid, a lubricating substance that improves the quality of joint fluid. These injections can last a few months and may reduce the need for oral pain medications.

In addition, a physical therapist can teach you exercises for strengthening muscles around a particular joint. Physical therapy can also relieve RA, which may cause joints to lock up if you don't maintain flexibility. In some cases, your doctor may refer you to an orthopedic surgeon.

Myth: "Exercise is going to worsen my arthritis."

Reality: Working out actually prevents the progression of arthritis. We know what you're thinking: Who wants to move when her knee's on fire? "But exercise strengthens muscles that provide support to joints, and stronger muscles mean there's less load on that joint," says Yul Ejnes, M.D., immediate past chair of the Board of Regents for the American College of Physicians. "If all you can do at first is short walks of even a few minutes, that's fine. The important thing is to get moving." Because arthritis pain waxes and wanes, avoid overdoing it when you're feeling good. And listen to your body. If you're achy after a specific activity, such as lunges or certain yoga poses, then that's not an exercise you should be doing. Avoid high-impact activities such as running, and choose low-impact exercise such as swimming, cross-country skiing or tai chi instead. Vary your workouts so you don't overtax certain joints.

Myth: "A prescription drug is the best way to control arthritis pain."

Reality: Over-the-counter solutions work wonders for many people. "The first-round drug of choice for OA is acetaminophen," says Jeffrey C. Delafuente, M.S., professor of pharmacotherapy at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. "It's effective and has few side effects." If acetaminophen doesn't provide pain relief, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or naproxen, may help. Or try an OTC topical cream that contains capsaicin; apply it for several weeks to feel improvement. Wearing a thumb splint or knee braces may also reduce discomfort.

If OTC treatments aren't effective, oral NSAIDs are available in stronger prescription doses or in topical creams. For moderate to severe pain, a prescription COX-2 inhibitor (Celebrex) may be easier on the stomach. No matter what drug you take, follow your doctor's instructions for dosage and how long to continue treatment.