Explore the variety of over-the-counter options available to sufferers
by MaryCarol Dolivier

Whether it’s a dull ache, sharp shooting pain or a painful burning sensation, chronic arthritis pain is a degenerative condition that affects joints and the surrounding connective tissues. Although the term arthritis is 
generically used to refer to more than 100 
different types of rheumatic diseases and 
conditions—from rheumatoid arthritis and lupus to fibromyalgia and gout—the most common form of arthritis is osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis results when joint cartilage breaks down. Cartilage is the tough but flexible connective tissue that functions as a 
cushion between bones. When cartilage 
degenerates, bones begin to rub together. Over time, this friction can cause permanent joint damage, resulting in osteoarthritis. As you might expect, because osteoarthritis is the result of wear and tear on joints, the condition often worsens with age. Symptoms of osteoarthritis include stiffness, pain, swelling and 
reduced motion in joints. It can occur in any joint, but is most common in the hands, knees, hips and spine.

Why is Pain Important?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 in every 5 American adults—50 million people—have doctor-diagnosed arthritis. If this opportunity does not seem large enough, consider this: In a recent USA Today article, rheumatologist Patience White, a spokeswoman for The Arthritis Foundation stated, “Osteoarthritis is a huge public health problem that’s going to grow considerably in the next 20 years because of obesity, lack of physical activity, the aging population and injuries.” With respect to the increasing senior population, a recent report for the CDC cautioned that as a result of the aging U.S. population, a trend often referred to as ‘The Silver Tsunami’, doctor-diagnosed arthritis is expected to increase from approximately 50 million adults today to an estimated 67 million by the year 2030. That means that roughly 25 percent of the projected total adult population will be dealing with arthritis and arthritis pain.

Pill-Free Pain Management Alternatives

Americans are increasingly on the search for pill-free alternatives for managing pain. This is not surprising when you consider that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), the most common pharmaceutical option, are often linked to increased risk of heart attacks and strokes. Pain-reliving opioid options carry a high risk for addiction and other unpleasant side effects. Fortunately, there are several non-pharmacological alternatives to pain relief that are ideally suited to retailers of senior care products. Three popular treatment options include topical creams and gels, hot/cold therapy treatments and electrical nerve stimulation.

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS)

This therapy option utilizes a low-voltage electrical current to deliver mild electrical pulses to the skin, which stimulate nerve fibers in the skin. Many experts believe that this stimulation interferes with the transmission of pain signals from the arthritic joint. Although research trials studying the effectiveness of TENS therapy are not conclusive, TENS has proved to be a popular form of pain relief for many people. In a recent interview with the Arthritis Foundation, Girish Padmanabhan, clinical director of outpatient rehab at The George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C., expressed his confidence in the benefits of TENS, stating, “TENS is effective in treating any kind of arthritis pain—in treating pain, period.” Newer options, like the LaserTouchOne, combine laser and TENS therapy to not only relieve pain but also to promote the body’s natural healing process at the cellular level. Most importantly, to DME providers, many of these TENS options have recently been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for over-the-counter use. This means arthritis sufferers no longer need a prescription to purchase TENS units.

Heat and Cold Therapies

Two of the simplest and most effective methods of relieving arthritis pain are heat and cold therapies, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Applying heat and cold stimulates the natural healing force of the body and can help to mitigate arthritis pain and stiffness. Heat therapy—Heat works by helping your muscles relax, which can alleviate both pain and stiffness. From a physiological perspective, heat dilates the blood vessels, stimulating blood circulation and reducing muscle spasms. It is also believed that heat alters the sensation of pain. There are two options for heat therapy, dry heat, such as microwavable heating packs or electric heating pads—or moist heat, such as warm baths or heated wash cloths. Cold therapy—Alternatively, cold therapy reduces swelling and inflammation by constricting blood vessels. Cold therapy also has a numbing effect on the area, slowing down the pain messages sent to the brain. Additionally, many health care professionals emphasize the importance of people with arthritis staying active. Cold therapy can be an important element of post workout recovery as it also helps to reduce swelling and inflammation that may follow physical activity. Which is better, heat or cold? Many experts, like Padmanabhan, strongly believe that heat works better than cold for people with osteoarthritis pain. Others, like the Mayo Clinic, recommend a combination of heat and cold treatments to help reduce inflammation and ease the pain and stiffness that comes with arthritis. Fortunately for arthritis sufferers, many of today’s most popular options provide both hot and cold therapy relief in a single product, such as FrozenPeaz hot and cold therapy wraps.

Topical Creams & Gels

For centuries, ointments, creams and liniments have been rubbed into sore joints to relieve pain. The most popular of these remedies fall into three primary categories: salicylates, menthol and capsaicin. Salicylates, such as Aspercreme, contain the pain-relieving substances similar to those found in aspirin. Using the cooling effect of menthol, alternatives such as Biofreeze and Icy Hot produce a sensation of hot or cold that may temporarily override the user’s ability to feel arthritis pain. Capsaicin creams, such as Capzasin and Zostrix, work by stimulating nerve cells, which depletes the cells of a chemical necessary to transmit pain. As a result, pain first increases and subsequently decreases. Because these topical pain medications are absorbed through the skin, these options are best suited to joints that are close to the skin’s surface, such as hands and knees.

What to Stock

Science shows that all of the above options provide relatively low risk, pill-free options that may reduce pain and inflammation. However, arthritis pain is different for every sufferer. Therefore, it is no surprise that medical opinions differ on which of the above options offer the most relief for pain and stiffness. There are no easy answers or magic solutions to relieve arthritis pain. What works for some may not work for others. Offering your clients a large range of products will help ensure you are able to find the right combination that works for each of them.