Exercise as effective as analgesic drugs for relieving pain from lower limb osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is incurable, but exercise can be one of the most effective therapies for managing this condition. In fact, recent studies have shown that exercise is as effective as medications for reducing pain from osteoarthritis, but it does so with fewer side effects and much greater benefits to physical and mental well-being.

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease and is one of the leading causes of pain and disability worldwide. In osteoarthritis, the joint cartilage that normally acts as a cushion between the bones of joints becomes thin and starts to wear away. This leads to pain, swelling and stiffness. There is no cure for osteoarthritis, but a well-formulated exercise program is one of the most effective treatments for this condition.

Recent studies have shown that the pain relief from regular exercise is comparable to that of simple analgesic drugs commonly prescribed to people with osteoarthritis (e.g. oral non-steroidal anti-inflammatories). Unlike drugs however, exercise has few side effects and provides much greater benefits with regard to improving physical function and quality of life.

Based on this evidence, it is not surprising that osteoarthritis management guidelines routinely recommend exercise (and weight loss in those who are overweight) as a cornerstone of treatment.

Benefits of exercise for people with osteoarthritis

As of 2002, there was enough evidence to show that exercise is better than no exercise for people with lower limb osteoarthritis. This is because exercise programs are consistently shown to:

  • Reduce pain
  • Improve physical function and quality of life
  • Manage associated co-morbidities (e.g. obesity and metabolic syndrome).


How to exercise right with lower limb osteoarthritis

We know that exercise is an effective treatment for osteoarthritis, but what type of exercise is best? Studies have shown that aerobic training (e.g. walking, cycling and swimming) and strength training are beneficial, regardless of the intensity at which they are performed or whether they are land or water-based. However, if you are new to exercise and/or overweight, then water-based exercise might be a good place to start because this places less stress on the joints so will likely be more comfortable. Lower intensity exercise might help in this regard too.

Because exercise adherence (i.e. how often you exercise) is the most important determinant of program success, it is important that you pick an activity that you enjoy and try to stick to it. Variety is important as well, so don’t feel as though you have to keep doing the same type of exercise over and over (but you can if you want to of course!). As a general example, consider the following:

  • Aim to accumulate at least 30 min of exercise on most days
  • Exercise at an intensity that gets you a little out of breath
  • Reduce periods of prolonged sitting as this increases joint stiffness
  • Find your limit – avoid very high intensity and/or long duration exercise that exacerbates your symptoms


As always, you should consult with your doctor before starting an exercise program and seek the help of Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP) for assistance in designing and implementing a program that is right for you.