What is Osteoarthritis?

Arthritis is the general term used whenever there is inflammation present within the joints.

Osteoarthritis, specifically, causes a breakdown of joint cartilage. It is the most common form of arthritis and can occur in virtually any joint of the body. It frequently affects those joints that bear the most weight throughout our lives – knees, hips, and spine. However, it can also create damage in the neck, fingers, and thumbs.

Osteoarthritis is unusual in that it does not often occur unless a joint has experienced excessive stress or previous injury. Underlying cartilage disorders can also trigger the condition. Osteoarthritis causes joint cartilage to stiffen and lose elasticity, which ultimately makes it more prone to damage. In time, the cartilage might begin to deteriorate, causing ligaments and tendons to become overworked and creating severe pain. The worst cases may find the bones of the joint actually rubbing against each other.

What are the Symptoms of Osteoarthritis?

The most common complaint of osteoarthritis patients is pain in the affected joint, especially after repeated movement. This discomfort is often worse in the later hours of the day. Some people may also notice:

  • Swelling
  • Warmth
  • Creaking
  • Stiffness after inactivity
  • Limited motion
  • Joint deformities
  • Limping
  • Joint dysfunction
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Bone spurs

Symptoms can vary greatly from person to person. Some individuals will have almost no problems despite the loss of cartilage, while others may become incapacitated. It is also not uncommon for patients to go for years between flare-ups.

Osteoarthritis Causes

Osteoarthritis can be caused by several factors, including getting older, improperly formed joints, being overweight, and stress on the joints from performing certain activities or repeating the same movement over and over (for instance, at a job or playing sports). Joint injury (like from sports or accidents), ligament tears and strains, and genetic defects in joint cartilage can also cause osteoarthritis. People over the age of 50 have a higher risk of osteoarthritis.

In some cases, people can inherit a gene that makes them more likely to get osteoarthritis. One study showed that variations in the gene for a cytokine associated with cartilage loss and inflammation had doubled the risk of arthritis. However, getting this gene doesn’t automatically mean you will develop osteoarthritis.

How is Osteoarthritis Treated?

Treatment for osteoarthritis may include a combination of therapy and self-care. Physical exercise, menthol, weight loss, and ice packs can do a lot to alleviate the pain. If needed, NSAID pain relievers can accomplish the same end. Doctors might also recommend physical therapy, stretching exercises, acupuncture, and hydrotherapy. Some cases may be severe enough to require joint replacement surgery.

Osteoarthritis Prevention

Making simple lifestyle changes can help you prevent osteoarthritis, including exercising, which increases muscle and bone strength and helps you maintain healthy joints. It also relieves stiffness, lowers your risk of diabetes, stabilizes your knees and hips, and reduces fatigue and pain. Exercising at least 30 minutes a day, five times a week, is recommended. Simply walking or gardening can help you lower your risk. Keeping your weight at a healthy level is recommended because being overweight causes additional stress to your already-aging joints.

Controlling your blood sugar and drinking plenty of water can help you avoid or manage diabetes (a risk factor for osteoarthritis). Having diabetes means higher glucose levels, which speeds up the development of molecules that cause cartilage to stiffen. Getting plenty of rest can also help you prevent osteoarthritis because overusing your joints can mean an increased risk of developing osteoarthritis.

If your job involves a lot of walking, kneeling, twisting or lifting, talk to your doctor about how you can reduce your risk of osteoarthritis.