The term arthritis is a very general term that simply refers to inflammation in the joints. The term osteoarthritis, also referred to as wear and tear arthritis, is the most common form of this disorder.
It can occur on nearly any joint in the body and involved a breakdown of the cartilage in the joints. However, it most commonly happens in the weight-bearing joints of the body such as spine, knees, and hips. In addition, it can affect the neck, big toe, fingers, and thumbs.
Cartilage is a very firm and rubbery material covering the end of your bones in normal, healthy joints. The main function of the cartilage is to be a “shock absorber” or reduce friction within the joints.
The shock absorbing abilities of cartilage is due to the fact that it can change shape when it is compressed.
In most cases, osteoarthritis, also referred to as OA, does not have an effect on other joints unless there has been a previous injury, or if there is an underlying cartilage disorder, or some sort of excessive stress on the joints.
Osteoarthritis results in the cartilage to lose elasticity and become stiff, which means that it is much more likely to become damaged. Over the years, cartilage is likely to wear away in some of the joints, which means it can no longer be a shock absorber for the joints.
As the cartilage begins to deteriorate, the ligaments and tendons will begin to stretch, which will cause pain. Over time, it is possible for the condition to become worse and result in the bones rubbing against each other.
Who is at Risk for this Condition?
It has been estimated that around 27 million Americans are affected by this condition. As individuals age, the chance of developing the condition increases.
Most individuals over the age of 60 have this condition to some extent, however, the severity of it varies from person to person.
Truthfully, individuals in their 20s or 30s can develop this condition, but if this happens there is typically an underlying cause, a repetitive stress injury, or some sort of joint injury. In those over the age of 50, more women than men are affected by this condition.
What are Symptoms of Osteoarthritis?
Typically, the signs and symptoms of this condition develop over time and can include some or all of the following:
- Achy/sore muscles, especially associated with movement
- Pain after overusing the joints or even after a long period of inactivity
- Feeling stiff after resting
- Bony enlargements in the end and middle joints on the fingers- these bony enlargements can may or may not include pain
- Swelling in the joints
Causes of Osteoarthritis
There are actually several things that can increase the risk for an individual to develop this condition, including the following:
There are some individuals who have an inherited defect in their genes that is responsible for producing cartilage. With this gene, an individual has defective cartilage which means that it deteriorates much more rapidly than normal.
Those who are born with abnormalities in their joints are much more likely to develop this condition. Those who are born with abnormalities of their spine are more likely to have osteoarthritis of the spine.
This can increase the risk of lots of different conditions, including osteoarthritis- especially the knees, spine, and hip. Maintaining a healthy weight or losing weight can help to prevent osteoarthritis or even slow down the progression of the condition.
These are likely to contribute to the development of this condition. Athletes that have knee injuries are at a higher risk for developing this condition in their knees.
Additionally, those who have had spinal injuries are much more likely to develop this condition in their spine. Those who have broken a bone near a joint may develop this condition in that particular joint.
Overusing specific joints can increase your risk for developing this condition.
Individuals diagnosed with RA, or rheumatoid arthritis, are much more likely to develop OA. Specific rare condition such as excess growth hormone or even iron overload increase the chance of developing this condition.
Osteoarthritis is often diagnosed based upon a combination of the following:
- Patient’s description of their symptoms
- Pattern/location of the pain
- Physical examination
Your physician is likely to use x-rays to help diagnose your joint pain in order to be sure that you’re not experiencing some other sort of arthritis. An x-ray will reveal the amount of damage that has been done.
In some cases, an MRI will be required in order to get a closer look at the joint and tissues around that joint if the x-rays don’t reveal arthritis or some other explainable condition.
In some cases, your physician may require blood tests in order to determine if you have a different form of arthritis.
If there has been fluid buildup in your joints, your physician may remove some, through a process known as joint aspiration, so that he/she can test it to rule out any other conditions.
In most cases, osteoarthritis is treated with a combination of things including physical therapy, muscle strengthening exercises, weight loss, hot/cold compresses, injection of medication into joints, removal of fluid buildup, medications, and supportive devices such as canes or crutches. When no other treatment seems to be helpful surgery may be used.
The form of treatment used depends upon several factors such as overall health, location of the OA, severity of the OA, activities/occupation, medical history, and age.
Weight/Exercise and Osteoarthritis
Maintaining a healthy, normal weight can help to prevent OA in your hips, knees, and spine because it reduces the amount of stress on these joints and can help reduce pain in the joints that are already being affected.
If you have already been diagnosed with this condition, losing a few pounds can relieve the pain and stress on your knees.
Exercise is vital for improvement in the movement of the joints and strength of the muscles around those joints.
In most cases, gentle exercises including walking on flat surfaces or swimming are recommended because these are less stressful on your joints.
You should avoid any activities that increase pain in your joints. Strengthening exercises are helpful in reducing pain in those who have OA of the knee.
Medications to Treat Osteoarthritis
When it comes to medication, the first step is OTC pain relievers as necessary. You should never take these medications for more than ten days unless your physician recommends them. Taking them for longer periods of time increases your risk for developing serious side effects.
If these OTC medications do not work, your physician may prescribe stronger anti-inflammatories or other medications to help with your pain and inflammation.
In some cases, you can apply sprays, rubs, or creams on the skin of the painful areas to relieve the pain. In some cases, the pain persists despite treatment. In this case, a physician can inject steroids directly into the joint.
These can be given several times each year- however, some experts say that these can cause acceleration of the joint damage.
Some individuals find that they obtain relief with hyaluronic acid injections, especially in OA of the knee.
Unfortunately, no matter what treatment you use, these will not slow or reverse the damage caused by OA. However, there will be some ways to slow down the progression discussed later in this article.
Alternative Osteoarthritis Treatments
Though it’s not clear whether it’s really effective or not, some medical researchers claim that supplements such as chondroitin and glucosamine can relieve OA pain.
However, despite claims, keep in mind that there is no proof that glucosamine will rebuild your cartilage. Another supplement that has potential benefits for OA sufferers is SAMe.
Make sure that you always notify your physician if you plan to try out any supplements because they could have some harmful interactions with prescription medications.
Another alternative treatment is acupuncture and acupressure for providing immediate and significant pain relief.
Supportive Devices for Osteoarthritis
A supportive or assistive device can decrease pressure on the joints. A knee support device can help to stabilize your tendons and ligaments- therefore reducing pain. Additionally, consider using crutches or canes to take pressure off your joints.
In addition to offering relief from pain, an assistive device can improve your ability to function as well as keep you from falling. A licensed health care professional will be able to recommend the best device for you.
Finally, there are many devices that can help you to perform daily activities that you may find difficult such as cooking or other housework.
When you have tried several different treatments and nothing has helped to control pain or the pain keeps you from participating in your daily activities, surgery may be the best option. Following are the surgeries available to treat OA:
This surgery is used to clean out damaged cartilage or repair damaged tissues. Most of the time, this type of surgery is done on knees and shoulders.
In some cases, the damage is so severe that replacement of the joint with an artificial one is necessary.
Of course, this should only be considered when the severity of the pain keeps the person from functioning and interferes with their quality of life.
This surgery will not return the joint to normal functioning but will offer some improvement in functioning and movement as well as decrease pain significantly.
This is where the damaged joint is removed and the two bones are fused together. This is usually done in areas where joint replacement won’t work.
Unfortunately, it is a fact of life that by the age of 65, over half of the population will have some x-ray evidence of osteoarthritis. Though it is much more common as we age, it is truly not an inevitable part of getting old.
As researchers begin to understand what causes this condition, they can offer better advice for preventing it and slowing its progression. Following are four things you can do:
Control Your Weight
If you are already at a healthy weight, the best thing you can do is to maintain that healthy weight to prevent OA. On the other hand, if you are overweight, losing a few pounds could be the best way to prevent or slow the progression.
Obesity has been proven to be a risk factor for developing this condition. In fact, obese women are four times as likely as non-obese women to develop OA. Obese men are five times more likely to develop it as non-obese men.
When you’re overweight, you’re putting strain on your joints, especially those that bear most of your weight such as your hips, knees, and spine. That strain results in cartilage deteriorating much more quickly.
If you can lose at least 5 percent of your body weight, you will decrease much of the strain on those joints.
One study showed overweight women who lost 11 pounds decreased their OA by over 50%. If you already have this condition, losing weight can definitely improve your symptoms.
Get adequate exercise
When your thigh muscles are weak, research has proven that you will be at an increased risk for developing painful OA in your knee. However, even just a little bit of increase in the strength of those muscles can greatly reduce your risk for developing OA.
However, if you are worried about experiencing joint pain after you exercise, you should try to use hot and cold compresses on the affected joints and/or take a pain reliever.
This is likely to help you to exercise and to keep you active. The best exercises are those that put the least amount of weight on the joints as possible.
Avoid Injury/Have them Treated Immediately
When you have a joint injury at a young age, you are more likely to develop OA as you get older. When you’re an adult and you injure your joint, you are at a much greater risk for developing the condition.
A long term study of 1321 individuals revealed that those who injured their knee as a child or adolescent were much three times more likely to develop OA in that same joint as they got older when compared to those who had not had an injury.
On the other hand, those who had a knee injury as an adult were five times more likely to develop OA.
Following are some tips for avoiding injuries when you’re playing sports or exercising:
- Don’t bend your knee past 90 degrees when doing a half knee bend
- When stretching, keep your feet as flat as possible to avoid twisting your knees
- When you jump, try to land with bent knees
- Before playing sports, even something like golf, make sure to do some warm-up exercises
- After participating in rigorous sports, make sure to cool down
- Make sure that your shoes fit properly and provide the proper stability and shock absorption
- When exercising, make sure you’re on the softest surface possible- try to avoid concrete or asphalt.
On the other hand, if you do experience an injury, it is important that you seek proper medical treatment and make sure that you take steps to avoid further damage to the joint.
Make sure to eat right
While it’s true that there is no specific diet that will prevent OA, there are specific nutrients that have been proven to reduce the risk or severity of the condition, including:
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3s have been proven to reduce inflammation in the joints and unhealthy fats increase the inflammation. Good omega-3 sources are some certain plant/nut oils and fish oils.
A moderate consumption of vitamin C- around 120 to 200 mg each day- can help reduce your risk of developing OA as well as slow the progression.
You can increase your vitamin C consumption by eating foods such as strawberries, broccoli, leafy greens, cantaloupe, green peppers, citrus, turnip greens, sweet/white potatoes, and tomatoes.
Individuals who have low blood levels of vitamin D and are suffering from OA in the knee are more likely to experience rapid progression of the condition, when compared with individuals who have high levels of this vitamin.
Your body naturally produces vitamin D when exposed to sunlight- however, you can increase it by eating fish, eggs, and vitamin D fortified milk and eggs.
Reducing Pain of Osteoarthritis
If you are already experiencing the pain and inflammation of OA, you can use these same steps to reduce your pain as well as other symptoms.
Additionally, there are many treatments that your physician can recommend ranging from OTC medications, as mentioned earlier, corticosteroid injections, and if necessary, surgery to replace the joint or even remove it and fuse the bones together.