While science has made strides in stopping joint damage from rheumatoid arthritis (RA) in the past two decades, treatment for osteoarthritis (OA) has continued to focus on relieving symptoms and replacing joints with prostheses once they become irreparably damaged.

Increasingly, however, researchers are looking for treatments that will not only ease OA’s pain and stiffness, but will slow, stop – or even prevent – the progression of joint damage. Their findings might surprise you. Here are five potential treatments that hold promise.

Stopping OA with Statins

The drugs people take to lower their cholesterol may also lower their chances of getting osteoarthritis – or delay its progression, recent research shows.

In a study of more than 16,000 adults published in the July 2013 issue of the Journal of General and Internal Medicine, researchers at Keele University in the United Kingdom found that those on the highest doses of statins – 18.5 milligrams (mg) or higher daily – were 60 percent less likely to have osteoarthritis than those not taking statins. Taking lower doses of between 10mg to 18.5mg a day was associated with a 20 percent reduction in OA. 

In a separate study published in the May 2012 Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, researchers at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, found that taking statins may help delay the progression of knee OA. In the study of 2,921 people aged 55 and older, researchers obtained X-rays of participants’ knees and hips at baseline and again six and half years later to look for signs of osteoarthritis.

The researchers found that, overall, progression of knee OA occurred in 6.9 percent of patients, while progression of hip OA occurred in 4.7 percent of participants. Among those with knee OA, statin use with associated with more than a 50 percent reduction in osteoarthritis.

However, the researchers don’t know exactly how statins protect against osteoarthritis. One hypothesis is that OA might be a lipid disorder, says Umesh Kadam, PhD, senior lecturer in general practice epidemiology at Keele University. “There is also possibility that statins have anti-inflammatory properties,” he says, “but this has yet to be proven.”

Kadam, whose work has shown a link between OA and cardiovascular disease, says more research is needed to evaluate statins before doctors can recommend them as disease-modifying agents.