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HealthInfo Waitaha Canterbury

Treating osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis can’t be cured but there are ways to reduce your pain and help you move better.

Mobility action programme

If osteoarthritis affects your knee or hip, your GP or allied health professional such as a chiropractor, osteopath, physiotherapist or podiatrist can refer you to the mobility action programme (MAP). This is a free eight-week programme that has been shown to help people move more easily and be able to do more in their everyday lives.

Physiotherapy and podiatry

A physiotherapist can assess your joints and work with you to develop a programme that strengthens and stabilises your joints. If you're eligible, your GP can refer you to a physiotherapist in the community.

You may prefer to pay to see a physiotherapist privately.

Podiatrists can look at how you're moving and walking. If your joint is in an abnormal position, joint supports or orthotics in your shoes might to help to reduce the load on your joints. This might help you to walk longer distances.

Heat and cold treatments

Heat relaxes your muscles and increases your blood circulation. Try warm baths and showers, saunas, wheat packs or hot water bottles to relive stiffness and pain in your arthritic joints.

Cold numbs the painful area and reduces swelling. Try applying ice packs wrapped in a towel to the painful area for no more than 15 minutes at a time.

Ask your doctor or physiotherapist whether heat or cold is best for you.


There are many types of medications available for osteoarthritis. Oral pain relievers include paracetamol, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and codeine products. There are also topical (rub on) pain relievers, steroid pills, and other specialist medications. Some are available over the counter at your pharmacy, and others you can only get on prescription from your doctor.

Your health professional will discuss medications and advise what is most appropriate for you. Never take more than the recommended or prescribed dose.

Steroid injections

In some people with severe osteoarthritis flare-ups, a steroid injection can provide pain relief for up to three months. This can be helpful when doing an exercise program or waiting for joint replacement surgery.

But steroid injections are not suitable for everyone and they're not normally recommended for people with osteoporosis.

If you do need a steroid injection, your GP may be able to do it. Otherwise, they may refer you to another GP or to the Community Musculoskeletal Service at Burwood Hospital.

Capsaicin cream (Zostrix)

Capsaicin cream blocks the nerves causing pain. You'll usually feel a warm almost burning sensation at first, but this quickly eases.

It the cream irritates your skin, stop using it and see your GP. DermNet NZ – Capsaicin has more information about capsaicin cream.

Complementary and alternative therapies

There are many complementary and alternative therapies that are popular for relieving symptoms of osteoarthritis. These include:

We know that acupuncture and some manual therapies may help some people to manage their osteoarthritis. The studies looking at how effective supplements and herbal medicines are show varied results. For more information see Complementary Therapies and Products from Arthritis New Zealand.

Check with your GP or pharmacist before you try a complementary or alternative therapy to make sure it's safe for you and will not interact with other medications or treatments.


If your osteoarthritis is causing you severe symptoms, your doctor may recommend surgery.

If your doctor thinks you might need a hip or knee replacement, they will refer you to a specialist. If you meet the criteria, the specialist will assess you to decide if a joint replacement is the right treatment for you.

If you do not meet the criteria for a joint replacement, you may be given information about Support for getting active or referred to a dietitian for support to lose weight, physiotherapy or a mobility action programme.

On the next page: Aids for people with osteoarthritis

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed March 2021.


See also:

Hip & knee replacement

Mobility action programmes for osteoarthritis

Page reference: 5887

Review key: HIOST-35589