A powder mixed with water, costing less than $1.30 a day, could be the wonder drug osteoarthritis sufferers have been waiting for.
"This is a major breakthrough in the treatment of osteoarthritis. For the first time we've been able to show a reduction in joint space narrowing but also improvement in pain and function. It's the first time we've been able to show both of those with one agent", said Professor Lyn March, a Rheumatologist consultant with Royal North Shore Hospital and one of the Australian investigators in the study.
Sore aching joints, stiffness in the knees and hips and the deterioration of cartilage on the bones these are just a few symptoms of the debilitating disease which has struck down at least 1.6 million Aussies, making the simplest of tasks problematic.
"The combination of pain and stiffness means that they find it tough to even put their soaks on, cut their toenails, put their shoes on, get into a car to move around or even take public transport", said orthopaedic surgeon, Marinis Pipiris.
72 year old Edith Gray has suffered osteoarthritis for almost five years. "I'm on a course of Panamax for pain; I do hydrotherapy exercise and physio; topical creams, heat and cold packs -- all of those things. I think if there is a new drug showing positive signs, then it is well worth trying", Edith said.
The most common treatment for severe cases involves surgery. "In terms of prosthesis there have been developments in how they incorporate into bone and I think that has been a major development in design", Dr Pipiris said.
80,000 knee and hip replacement operations are performed every year. "When were are looking at a hip, it is normally its white, glistening and smooth, but we the red raw surfaces, give people pain", Dr Pipiris said.
Dr Pipiris operates at Epworth Hospital in Melbourne. "We like to get our patients up on same day of surgery to at least sit on end of bed, often stand up and often walk around the room", he said.
Although necessary for many patients, it's certainly not a cheap option and as with all surgery there are risks. "A total hip replacement can vary from anywhere from the $4-5 thousand mark and it can be as expensive as $15,000. There are always risks of hips or knees dislocating particularly near hip joints and there are always risks to surrounding arteries and vessels", Dr Pipiris said.
Other treatments involve medication such as anti-inflammatories, topical creams and artificial joint fluid and now the preliminary results of an international study, has uncovered a drug which is proving successful in treating osteoarthritis.
Strontium Ranelate, marketed as Protos in Australia, is currently sold as a prescription medication for post-menopausal women with osteoporosis. Never before has it been used to treat osteoarthritis.
Professor March says, "The study went for three years so it was more than 18 months before we saw a difference. The results in fact were very exciting because for the first time we've been able to show that the progression of osteoarthritis is slowed".
There are some risks. "There's potential for some very serious rashes. It is very rare but people can be highly sensitive to it", Professor March said.
"As orthopaedic surgeons the public often perceives that we like operating and that's what we do as core business, but we really like our patients having a great experience and if we can avoid the surgery I think that's great. We are looking forward to the data that will re-enforce that hope" Dr Pipiris said.
"About 50% of people who develop osteoarthritis do so because of their body weight", said rheumatologist Professor David Hunter, who works with Arthritis Australia.
He says exercise is the key. "The number of sufferers with osteoarthritis will double in the next 10 years. The focus should be on losing weight and improving muscle strength", he said.
Protos costs $34.40 for 28 daily sachets or $5.80 for concession card holders.