Millions of people suffer from osteoarthritis but are unsure how to treat it effectively.

The condition emerges when joints become damaged and painful to use.

Half of people aged over 60 are affected, reporting symptoms in their hands, knees or hips, according to Arthritis Research UK (read more).

Currently there are about 164,000 hip and knee replacements a year helping people to live more mobile lives, but not everyone has to consider surgery straightaway.

“Osteoarthritis is a very common problem and in severe cases sufferers may need joint replacement but most don’t, so other things are tried first,” says Dr Fraser Birrell, a medical expert with charities Arthritis Care.

He says many of the symptoms, which include pain when using a joint, a grating or grinding sensation in the joint, hard or soft swelling or not being able to move the joint normally, can be treated simply through exercise or weight loss.

“Most cases of osteoarthritis are not progressive and there can be a misconception that this is wear and tear and there is nothing you can do about it,” says Dr Birrell.  “However by losing weight or taking more exercise you can be in control of your life and the pain.”

Strengthening exercises will improve the power and tone of the muscles that control a joint, while aerobic exercises such as cycling and swimming several times a week can reduce the pain and improve someone’s general health, including their sleep cycle.

As well as exercise and weight loss, self-management can include using topical anti-inflammatories, capsaicin creams that act as painkillers and the use of a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) machine which alters pain messages to the brain.

Sufferers can assess which treatments work for them and seek medical help if their symptoms worsen.

The healthcare professional’s role is to understand how osteoarthritis is impacting on someone’s life and offer help and support.

Dr Birrell says healthcare professionals should move away from the concept of ‘wear and tear’, which he says is negative and inaccurate.

He prefers the ‘tear, flare and repair’ model of osteoarthritis because joints comprise living tissue.

‘Tear’ represents damage to the joint, as injuries are a key cause, ‘flare’ is the inflammatory episodes causing the pain; and ‘repair’ is the healing process of the joint tissues.