If you're one of the 50 million North Americans living with nagging arthritis pain, don't be discouraged by recent news about treatment duds and dangers. Plenty of safe, proven ache-easers can keep you off the sidelines and may eliminate or reduce your dependence on painkillers and postpone the need for a joint replacement.
First, some alerts and advice about well-known arthritis pain-relief treatments:
» Diclofenac is the most popular NSAID (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug) in the world. But a new report says these pills could boost your risk for a heart attack or stroke by 91 percent, if taken regularly. Experts in Canada have called for a global ban. However, topical (cream) diclofenac could serve as a safer form of the drug for people looking to relieve their arthritis pain.
» Over-the-counter pain relievers (ibuprofen and acetaminophen) were once considered super-safe, but they now are known to increase the risk of heart and liver problems by 29 percent.
» Viscosupplementation, the injection of a layer of synthetic or natural hyaluronic acid into painful knee joints, can offer remarkable relief for some people. But if you are obese, inactive and don't have good leg strength, it may not make a measurable difference in your comfort level. Even if you're young or athletic, for no known reason there's sometimes little benefit. And the new 3-in-1 injections are more likely to cause swelling and joint inflammation right after treatment than the original 1-a-week-for-3-weeks routine (which you can still ask for). For most people, the greatest pain relief comes eight to 12 weeks after beginning treatment and can last for six months or longer.
Second, here's what you can do to safely and effectively handle your arthritic pain. Check out this list of top, research-proven relievers, many of which haven't gotten the attention they deserve:
» Pain-relieving gels and creams. Over-the-counter ointments containing capsaicin -- an extract of red chili peppers -- can reduce pain by 40 percent if used daily for at least a month. Capsaicin works by depleting your body's supply of substance P, a chemical messenger that transmits pain signals to the brain. The capsaicin ointment may burn when you first apply it, but stick with it. After a few days of use, you will feel the full effects.
Need more relief? Ask your doctor about getting a prescription for a NSAID cream or gel. These are applied to your skin over sore joints, so not as much of this potentially harmful medication enters your bloodstream. These may provide relief for up to 60 percent of people with arthritis.
» Stretching and exercise. Stretching increases blood flow to the joints. Warm-water aerobics, a stroll around the block or pedaling an exercise bike can improve ease of motion and build muscles to take pressure off troubled joints. Yet only one in five people with arthritis is taking advantage of this natural pain-relief prescription! So talk with your doctor to determine what's the best exercise routine for you, and get going!
» A little weight loss. Every pound you lose takes four pounds of pressure off your aching joints. If you are overweight, losing 10 pounds reduces compression on each knee by a total of 48,000 pounds for every mile you walk. Whew! That's a lot of relief.
» A colorful diet. Foods that ease inflammation lend a hand to joint-pain relief, so load up on a colorful array of vegetables and fruits, such as strawberries, leafy greens, carrots, blueberries and cherries. And opt for fatty fish like omega-3 DHA-loaded salmon and trout; then drizzle salads with olive oil; add some omega-3 rich walnuts, and wash it all down with green tea. At the same time, go easy on foods that ramp up inflammation, such as refined grains, and sunflower and soybean oils, which may tip the fatty-acid balance in your body in the wrong direction (they load you up with omega-6).
Mehmet Oz, M.D., is host of "The Dr. Oz Show," and Mike Roizen, M.D., is chief wellness officer and chairman of the Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. To live your healthiest, visit sharecare.com.