This serious, painful condition is the most common form of arthritis and can affect any joint.
Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease that can affect the many tissues of the joint. It is by far the most common form of arthritis, affecting more than 32.5 million adults in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Historically, osteoarthritis (OA) was known as a “wear and tear” condition, generally associated with aging. But we know now that it is a disease of the entire joint, including bone, cartilage, ligaments, fat and the tissues lining the joint (the synovium). Osteoarthritis can degrade cartilage, change bone shape and cause inflammation, resulting in pain, stiffness and loss of mobility.
OA can affect any joint, but typically affects hands, knees, hips, lower back and neck. Its signs and symptoms typically show up more often in individuals over age 50, but OA can affect much younger people, too, especially those who have had a prior joint injury, such as a torn ACL or meniscus. It typically develops slowly over time, but after such an injury, it can develop much more rapidly, within just a few years. OA is not an inevitable aging disease; some people never develop it.
There is no cure for OA, but there are ways to manage OA to minimize pain, continue physical activities, maintain a good quality of life and remain mobile.
Factors that may contribute to the development of OA include
- Age. The risk of developing OA increases with age and symptoms generally, but not always, appear in people over 50.
- Joint injury. A bone fracture or cartilage or ligament tear can lead to OA, sometimes more quickly than in cases where there is not an obvious injury.
- Overuse. Using the same joints over and over in a job or sport can result in OA.
- Obesity. Excess weight adds stress and pressure on a joint, plus fats cells promote inflammation.
- Musculoskeletal abnormalities. Malalignment of bone or joint structures can contribute to faster development of OA.
- Weak muscles. If muscles don’t provide adequate joint support, poor alignment can result, which can lead to OA.
- Genetics. People with family members who have OA are more likely to develop it.
- Gender. Women are more likely to develop OA than men.
- Environmental Factors. Modifiable environmental risk factors include things like someone’s occupation, level of physical activity, quadriceps strength, presence or absence of prior joint injury, obesity, diet, sex hormones, and bone density.
Symptoms tend to build over time rather than show up suddenly. They include
- Pain or aching in a joint during activity, after long activity or at the end of the day.
- Joint stiffness usually occurs first thing in the morning or after resting.
- Limited range of motion that may go away after movement.
- Clicking or popping sound when a joint bends.
- Swelling around a joint.
- Muscle weakness around the joint.
- Joint instability or buckling (as when a knee gives out).
OA may affect different parts of the body in different ways.
- Hips. Pain in the groin area or buttocks and sometimes on the inside of the knee or thigh.
- Knees. A “grating” or “scraping” feeling when moving the knee.
- Fingers. Bony growths (spurs) at the edge of joints can cause fingers to become swollen, tender and red, sometimes with pain at the base of the thumb.
- Feet. Pain and tenderness in the big toe, with possible swelling in the ankles or toes.
Pain, reduced mobility, side effects from medications and other factors associated with osteoarthritis can lead to health complications that are not caused by the disease itself.
Obesity, Diabetes and Heart Disease
Painful joints, especially in the feet, ankles, knees, hip or back, make it harder to exercise. But physical activity is not only key to managing OA symptoms, it also can help prevent weight gain, which can lead to obesity. Being overweight or obese can lead to the development of high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.
Research indicates people with OA experience more falls and risk of fracture than those without OA. Although study results vary, some research shows they may have up to 30% more falls and have a 20% greater risk of fracture. Having OA can decrease function, weaken muscles, affect overall balance, and make falls more likely, especially among those with OA in knees or hips. Side effects from pain medications, such as dizziness, can also contribute to falls.
Medical history, a physical examination and lab tests help to make up the OA diagnosis.
A primary care doctor may be the first person you talk to about joint pain. The doctor will review your medical history, symptoms, how the pain affects activities, as well as your medical problems and medication use. He or she will also look at and move your joints, and may order imaging. These tests help to make the diagnosis:
- Joint aspiration. After numbing the area, a needle is inserted into the joint to pull out fluid. This test will look for infection or crystals in the fluid to help rule out other medical conditions or other forms of arthritis.
- X-ray. X-rays can show joint or bone damage or changes related to osteoarthritis.
- MRI. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) gives a better view of cartilage and other parts of the joint.
There is no cure for OA, but medication, assistive devices and other therapies that don’t involve drugs can help to ease pain. As a last resort, a damaged joint may be surgically fused or replaced with one made of a combination of metal, plastic and/or ceramic.
Pain and anti-inflammatory medicines for osteoarthritis are available as pills, syrups, patches, gels, creams or injectables. They include:
- Analgesics. These are pain relievers and include acetaminophen and opioids. Acetaminophen is available over the counter (OTC); opioids must be prescribed by a doctor.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). These are the most commonly used drugs to ease inflammation and pain. They include aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen and celecoxib, available either OTC or by prescription. The OTC versions help with pain but not inflammation.
- Counterirritants. These OTC products contain ingredients like capsaicin, menthol and lidocaine that irritate nerve endings, so the painful area feels cold, warm or itchy to take focus away from the actual pain.
- Corticosteroids. These prescription anti-inflammatory medicines work in a similar way to a hormone called cortisol. The medicine is taken by mouth or injected into the joint at a doctor’s office.
- Platelet-rich plasma (PRP). Available from a doctor by injection, this product is intended to help ease pain and inflammation. This is not approved by the Food & Drug Administration and evidence is still emerging, so discuss it with your doctor before trying it.
- Other drugs. The antidepressant duloxetine (Cymbalta) and the anti-seizure drug pregabalin (Lyrica) are oral medicines that are FDA-approved to treat OA pain.
Movement is an essential part of an OA treatment plan. Getting 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise per week should be the goal, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A good exercise program to fight OA pain and stiffness has four parts:
- Strengthening exercises build muscles around painful joints and helps to ease the stress on them.
- Range-of-motion exercise or stretching helps to reduce stiffness and keep joints moving.
- Aerobic or cardio exercises help improve stamina and energy levels and reduce excess weight.
- Balance exercises help strengthen small muscles around the knees and ankles and help prevent falls.
Talk to a doctor or physical therapist before starting a new exercise program.
Excess weight puts additional force and stress on weight-bearing joints, including the hips, knees, ankles, feet and back, and fat cells promote inflammation. Losing extra weight helps reduce pain and slow joint damage. Every pound of weight lost removes four pounds of pressure on lower-body joints.
Physical Therapies and Assistive Devices
Physical therapists, occupational therapists and chiropractors can provide:
- Specific exercises to help stabilize your joints and ease pain.
- Information about natural treatments and products that can ease pain.
- Instruction to make movement easier and to protect joints.
- Braces, shoe inserts or other assistive devices.
Joint surgery can improve pain and function. Joint replacement surgery replaces damaged joints to restore mobility and relieve pain. Hips and knees are the joints most commonly replaced. An orthopedic surgeon can determine the best procedure based on how badly damaged the joint is.
Practicing these habits can slow down OA, keep you healthier overall and delay surgery as long as possible. It is important to pursue a number of different self-care approaches simultaneously. They are listed below.
Maintain a Healthy Weight
Excess weight worsens OA. Combine healthy eating with regular exercise to maintain a healthy weight.
Control Blood Sugar
Many people have diabetes and OA. Having high glucose levels can make cartilage stiffer and more likely to break down. Having diabetes causes inflammation, which also weakens cartilage.
Maintain Range of Motion
Movement is medicine for joints. Make a habit of putting your joints through their full range of motion, but only up to the point where it doesn’t cause more pain. Gentle stretching, raising and lowering legs from a standing or seated position, daily walks and hobbies such as gardening can help. But listen to your body and never push too hard.
Make sure to warm up and cool down when doing exercise. If you play sports, protects joints with the right gear. Use your largest, strongest joints for lifting, pushing, pulling and carrying. Watch your step to prevent falls. Balance rest and activity throughout the day.
Find ways to reduce or avoid stress through meditation, listening to music, connecting with friends and family, doing fun activities, and finding ways to relax and recharge.
Choose a Healthy Lifestyle
Eating healthy food, balanced nutrition, not smoking, drinking in moderation and getting good sleep will help you to feel your best.
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