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Understanding joint pain

Joint pain can be quite common, so we chatted with a couple of specialists from Cairns Private Hospital to learn more about potential causes and responses...

While joint pain in younger people is often due to injury from sporting-related activity, as people get older the most common cause of joint pain is osteoarthritis, according to orthopaedic surgeon Dr Ben Parkinson.

“Osteoarthritis can be due to the wear and tear of life and obesity is a common contributor – being overweight earlier in life and carrying that extra weight catches up on you. Another contributor can be previous knee injuries to ligaments and menisci,” he said.

Dr Parkinson said people generally seek help when joint pain is interfering with their day to day life and perhaps meaning they can’t sleep. They may have functional limitations – for example they may have been used to walking the dog on the beach four to five kilometres a day but now can only manage one kilometre before they get pain and swelling.

“The majority of patients I see are sixty-plus, but there are a lot in their fifties that need advice.”

Dr Parkinson said while for some, surgery may be required, many people may be able to improve their symptoms by simply changing their type of exercise to unload the joint, such as switching to cycling or swimming.

“Physiotherapists are often useful in identifying types of exercise that won’t inflame or irritate the joint,” he said, adding that other measures may include weight loss and orthopaedic braces.

Orthopaedic surgeon Dr David Shepherd – also from Cairns Private Hospital – said joint pain was a very diverse subject and in any individual the response could be quite different, so it was a matter of understanding each patient’s problem and individualising a treatment plan.

“There’s pain and there’s pain. If you suddenly overdo it and you’re sore it should settle but if it has not settled after weeks you probably need to seek help and probably the first port of call is your GP.”

He said first line responses may include anti-inflammatory tablets and physiotherapy. As for whether surgery is required, it often becomes a question of how much the joint pain is restricting their life.

Joint replacement surgery varies from individual to individual, but for patients who are looking at having hip or knee replacement, they may be out of hospital in just a few days after the procedure, walking inside for about six weeks, and generally back to normal activities of daily life after three months.

Dr Shepherd, who has been working in orthopaedics in Cairns since 1993, pursued orthopaedic training in Brisbane after growing up in Cairns.

“At the start, it was like an interesting 3D jigsaw puzzle and as time has gone on, I’ve really appreciated contact with patients, have met a lot of nice people and enjoyed helping them and getting them going again,” he said.