What is it?
Arthritis is a complex family of musculoskeletal disorders consisting of more than 100 different diseases or conditions that destroy joints, bones, muscles, cartilage and other connective tissues, hampering or halting physical movement. Osteoarthritis (OA) is one of the oldest and most common forms of arthritis and is a chronic condition characterized by the breakdown of the joint’s cartilage. Cartilage is the part of the joint that cushions the ends of the bones and allows easy movement of joints. The breakdown of cartilage causes the bones to rub against each other, causing stiffness, pain and loss of movement in the joint.
Today, an estimated 27 million Americans live with OA, but, despite the frequency of the disease, its cause is still not completely known and there is no cure. In fact, many different factors may play a role in whether or not you get OA, including age, obesity, injury or overuse and genetics. Your OA could be caused by any one or by a combination of any of these factors.
What causes it?
Common risk factors for osteoarthritis include.
- Age. Incidences of OA increase as you age. Since “wear and tear” does play a part in the development of OA, the older you are, the more you have used your joints. Although age is an important risk factor, it doesn’t mean that OA is inevitable.
- Obesity. Increased body weight is a serious factor in the development of OA, particularly in your knees, which carry the brunt of your weight day in and day out. For every pound you gain, you add four pounds of pressure on your knees and six times the pressure on your hips. Recent research suggests that excess body fat produces chemicals that travel throughout the body and cause joint damage, which would mean obesity plays a systemic, not just a mechanical, role in osteoarthritis onset.
- Injury or Overuse. Athletes and people who have jobs that require doing repetitive motion, such as landscaping, typing or machine operating, have a higher risk of developing OA due to injury and increased stress on certain joints. OA also develops in later years in joints where bones have been fractured or surgery has occurred.
- Genetics or Heredity. Genetics plays a role in the development of OA, particularly in the hands. Inherited abnormalities of the bones that affect the shape or stability of the joints can lead to OA. Just because you have one of these inherited traits, doesn’t mean that you are going to develop OA. It just means that your doctor should check you more closely and more frequently for signs and symptoms of the disease.
- Muscle Weakness. Studies of the knee muscles not only show that weakness of the muscles surrounding the knee can lead to OA, but that strengthening exercises for thigh muscles are important in reducing the risk.
What are the effects?
Most often, OA develops gradually. It may start as soreness or stiffness that seems more a nuisance than a medical concern. Pain may be moderate, intermittent and not interfere with your day-to-day existence. Some people’s OA will never progress past this early stage. Others will have their OA progress to a point where it interferes with daily activities, and the pain and stiffness make it difficult to walk, climb stairs or sleep. Rarely, a person with OA will experience sudden signs of inflammation such as redness, pain and swelling, known as inflammatory or erosive osteoarthritis.
The most common signs and symptoms of osteoarthritis are:
- Joint soreness after periods of overuse or inactivity.
- Stiffness after periods of rest that goes away quickly when activity resumes.
- Morning stiffness, which usually lasts no more than 30 minutes.
- Pain caused by the weakening of muscles surrounding the joint due to inactivity.
- Joint pain is usually less in the morning and worse in the evening after a day’s activity.
- Deterioration of coordination, posture and walking due to pain and stiffness.
Osteoarthritis most commonly occurs in the weight-bearing joints of the hips, knees and lower back. It also affects the neck, small finger joints, the base of the thumb and the big toe. OA rarely affects other joints except when injury or stress is involved.
How is it diagnosed?
The most important thing you can do if you suspect you have any form of arthritis is to get a proper diagnosis and begin treatment. Your doctor will use four main tools to determine your diagnosis: your medical history, a physical exam, X-rays and joint aspiration. The medical history and physical exam will be what he or she bases the diagnosis on, using tests such as X-rays and joint aspirations to confirm the diagnosis.
What are the treatment options?
You are the key factor in living successfully with OA. In addition to, and maybe more important than, medications you may take, making healthy lifestyle changes, managing stress and depression, avoiding joint damage, and balancing rest and activity will play a key role in battling the pain and limitations that can come with OA.
The goals of any treatment plan for OA include:
- Controlling pain and other symptoms
- Improving your ability to function in daily activities
Most treatment plans will include a combination of the following elements:
- Weight control
- Joint protection
- Physical and occupational therapy
In severe cases, when the therapies above don’t work, surgery may be considered.
What resources are available?
The Arthritis Foundation leads the way in helping people with arthritis live better today and create better tomorrows through new treatments, better access and, ultimately, cures. We do this by:
- Funding life-changing research that has restored mobility in patients for more than six decades
- Fighting for health care policies that improve the lives of the millions of Americans with arthritis
- Partnering with families to provide empowering programs and information
If you are diagnosed with osteoarthritis, some Arthritis Foundation resources that may help you better manage and live with your disease are:
- Learn more about osteoarthritis.
- Discover ways to make living with arthritis easier.
- Understand the causes of pain and the best ways to manage it.
- Discover what is happening with arthritis research.
- Help researchers find more effective treatments.
- Tell Congress more needs to be done for people with arthritis.