Understanding the Roots, Causes, and Treatments
While there are over 100 different types of arthritis and arthritis-related conditions, osteoarthritis is far and away the most common. Affecting more than 20 million Americans, it’s expected to surpass 40 million by 2020.
As the most prevalent version of this degenerative joint disease, osteoarthritis is a leading cause of disability in adults over 50. When left untreated, it can be highly debilitating, as it usually affects the weight-bearing joints essential to normal mobility, including the hips and knees.
What Does a Healthy Joint Look Like?
In a healthy joint, we have cartilage that cushions each end of the bone. When intact, this cartilage helps our bones glide together smoothly when our joints are in motion. It’s your cartilage that prevents inflammation that comes from the bone rubbing against bone.
How and Where Does Osteoarthritis Occur?
It’s commonly referred to as “wear-and-tear” arthritis. Injuries combine with everyday use and time to cause the smooth cartilage in our joints to erode as we age, like rubber treads on car tires. With enough time and erosion, these joints become “bald,” leaving no cartilage protection between the bones. This lack of cartilage makes proper joint mobility difficult, causing pain and inflammation across the joint.
While this condition is most commonly found in weight-bearing joints like knees and hips, it can also affect other areas of your body, including:
- Lower back
- Fingers & toes
What are the symptoms of osteoarthritis?
How do you know if you’re experiencing osteoarthritis? Symptoms typically begin with discomfort and stiffness in the joints, especially after waking or resting. After extended periods of activity, affected joints can swell due to inflammation.
Symptoms to look out for include:
- Stiffness or limited range of joint motion
- Cracking sounds triggered by joint movement
- Swelling around the joint
- Joint pain after exertion
Osteoarthritis can manifest in different ways, depending on the joint it affects.
- Fingers: You’ll see redness swelling around the joints, as well as bone spurs that are tender to the touch.
- Hips: You may experience pain on the inside of the knee, upper thigh, near the groin, or around the buttocks.
- Knees: When in motion, you may feel a grating sensation around the knee joint.
- Feet: Swelling around the toes and ankles is common, as well as pain in the joint where the big toe meets the foot.
Osteoarthritis can hinder your ability to complete everyday tasks such as walking, driving, lifting objects, and even opening containers.
Who is Affected by Osteoarthritis?
While most common in adults over the age of 50, you can develop this ailment at any age. People who are obese, have experienced past joint injuries (especially sports-related ones), and/or who have a genetic predisposition have a higher risk of developing osteoarthritis.
In order to be officially diagnosed with osteoarthritis, your doctor will need information about both your personal and family medical history. They will also need to perform a physical evaluation where they examine your joints by testing their range of motion and looking for abnormalities, such as tenderness or swelling. Diagnostic tests like joint aspiration, x-rays, or an MRI scan will confirm the diagnosis.
How Can I Manage Osteoarthritis?
If left untreated, this condition can cause bones to break down, resulting in the development of bone spurs. While there is no cure for osteoarthritis, you can manage symptoms in a variety of ways.
Excess weight can exacerbate symptoms, as it puts more pressure on the joints, making them work harder. Achieving a healthy weight for your frame and body type can help reduce pressure on joints, which in turn, reduces pain and additional damage.
While it may seem counterintuitive, remaining active is crucial in managing osteoarthritic pain. Swimming, walking, and light strength training all help to keep your range of motion intact and build muscle, which reduces the burden on nearby joints.
Light stretching or yoga can help keep your joints from becoming stiff and improve flexibility. The key when stretching is to be slow and gentle with your movements.
Topical analgesics, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), corticosteroids, and hyaluronic acid injections are some of the many medicinal ways you can manage pain caused by osteoarthritis.
From stretching and strengthening to heat and cold therapies, visiting a physical therapist regularly can offer a variety of treatment plans for dealing with joint pain.
Unfortunately, no permanent cure for osteoarthritis exists at this time, but there are countless ways to manage symptoms and prevent further damage so that you can still enjoy a high quality of life.