Osteoarthritis is a form of arthritis that develops when the cartilage cushioning bone ends in the joint wears down over time. It is also the most commonly encountered form of arthritis and affects millions of North American adults in their middle aged or later years. The areas most commonly affected are the hands, knees, hips and spine.
As with many other forms of arthritis, osteoarthritis causes pain, stiffness and swelling of the affected joints. It mainly affects adults over aged 60 and tends to attack one side (i.e. left or right) at a time.
There is no fundamental cure for osteoarthritis (i.e. no measures doctors can take that will eliminate or reverse the damage to joints). Instead, doctors usually try to manage the severity of its symptoms, slow the rate of progression of the disease and preserve as much joint range of motion and function as possible.
Causes Of Osteoarthritis
As mentioned above, osteoarthritis is a result of the breakdown of bone cartilage, causing the bone ends to rub directly against each other.
Cartilage is a tough but slippery mass that covers the ends of healthy bones and allows them to glide smoothly and frictionlessly over each other as someone moves the joint.
Hence, the result of cartilage deterioration means that bone starts to rub directly against bone, causing increasing joint pain and stiffness when the affected individual tries to move the joint.
The cartilage breakdown may be the result of wear and tear over time, or it may be the result of an earlier injury that causes the relative positions of bones in the joint to change so that they are closer together. This can then cause increased bone on bone contact, which in turn causes faster cartilage breakdown than would otherwise be the case.
The effects of osteoarthritis, however, are not limited to the lining of bones in the joint. As time progresses, the disease also changes the bones themselves as well as the connective tissues holding the joint together and attaching muscle to bone. Inflammation of joint lining is also a factor that creates the joint pain and stiffness characteristic of the disease.
There are several factors that can increase the probability that an individual may develop osteoarthritis. These include:
Age – the incidence of the disease increases with age;
Gender – it occurs more often in men than in women;
Excess body weight increases the risk of osteoarthritis, as it places more pressure on weight bearing joints like those in the hips, knees and spine;
Previous joint injuries – as mentioned above, previous injuries can sometimes change the relative positions of joint bones and cause the bones to contact each other more frequently or in a different way than intended. This can result in increased osteoarthritic risk;
Occupation or sporting activities – it is possible that certain occupations or sports can place additional and repeated stress on joints and increase the risk of osteoarthritis;
Genetic factors – in some cases, individuals may inherit an increased osteoarthritic risk through a gene;
Having diabetes or hemochromatosis (a condition in which your body has above normal amounts of iron) can increase your osteoarthritis risk.
Osteoarthritis has many symptoms in common with other forms of arthritis. The most typical symptoms experienced by people with osteoarthritis are:
Joint pain during or after physical activity;
Joint stiffness which, unlike arthritis pain, is usually at its worst just after the patient has awakened or after a period of inactivity;
A feeling that the joint is “tender to the touch”;
Lost range of motion of the joint;
Crepitus, or a popping or cracking sound when the patient tries to move the joint;
Formation of additional lumps of bone (bone spurs) around the arthritic joint;
Swelling of the joint.
When the disease strikes, it usually (although not invariably) produces joint damage on one side only. This is in contrast to some other forms of arthritis such as rheumatoid arthritis, which usually develop on both sides simultaneously.
Possible complications of osteoarthritis include a progressive loss of ability to carry out normal activities of daily living without pain and discomfort. As the disease progresses, even simple things like taking a walk, bathing and dressing become increasingly painful.
In extreme cases, affected individuals will go to extreme lengths to avoid the daily pain and discomfort of the disease, such as staying in bed longer to avoid having to move.
The pain can nevertheless be experienced even while sleeping, so sleep disturbance is another possible complication.
The net effect of these developments can be the onset of depression as the patient’s quality of life deteriorates.
Diagnosis Of Osteoarthritis
Probably the first step by a doctor in diagnosing the cause of joint pain and stiffness will be a physical examination of the affected joint.
In conducting the examination, the doctor will be looking for signs such as tenderness, swelling, redness and loss of range of motion (i.e. reduced flexibility).
The doctor may also review the patient’s medical history. Of particular interest will be previously experienced injuries of or near the affected joint that may be causing the osteoarthritic symptoms the patient is experiencing. As mentioned above, some types on injuries can change the joint in such a way as to increase the risk of later development of osteoarthritis.
Once the physical examination has been completed, the doctor may request a series of imaging studies to get a better idea of what is going on inside the affected joint.
The specific studies requested may include:
X rays to reveal any narrowing of the distance between bones in the joint (possibly due to loss of bone cartilage). X rays can also reveal any bone spurs that may have developed in the joint;
If the doctor feels that there may be additional joint damage that he or she does not fully understand, an MRI study may be requested to provide more information about the structures inside the joint.
As final confirmation of the indications of the physical exam and imaging studies, doctors may request testing of patient blood samples as well as fluid drawn from the affected joint.
The blood test results can help the doctor to eliminate other conditions like rheumatoid arthritis that may also be causing joint pain and stiffness.
Joint fluid can be tested for inflammation and/or bacteria that may identify other conditions such as gout (a highly inflammatory form of arthritis) or an infection that may be causing the patient’s joint pain.
There are some home based treatments that one can use for mild cases of osteoarthritis, such as:
Gentle walking or running;
Low impact exercises such as gente swimming or cycling;
For cases of knee osteoarthritis, an unloader knee brace can be effective in reducing knee pain and slowing the rate of cartilage deterioration.
The home based exercises will help to improve joint function for those with mild cases of the disease, helping them to maintain the ability to perform routine tasks without too much pain. For even more progress, the physical therapy exercises mentioned below can also be considered.
Doctor based treatment plans for osteoarthritis can be classified into three groups – medications, therapy treatments and surgery.
Osteoarthritis patients may be prescribed pain relief medications, including:
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) or other similar pain relief drugs if the pain is not severe;
Non steroidal anti inflammatory medications such as Ibuprofen or Naproxen may be taken to reduce pain if it is severe. Doctors may ask the patient to report any side effects of these medications such as stomach upset, and they themselves will likely monitor for cardiovascular problems or organ damage;
Cymbalta – an antidepressant drug that may also be effective if taken to relieve pain such as that from osteoarthritis.
Therapy Treatment Plans
These can include:
Physical therapy exercises to strengthen joint muscles and improve range of motion;
Occupational therapy that can help the patient to modify his/her daily activities or equipment around the home to relieve arthritic pain;
TENS therapy, which uses a low level electrical signal to reduce pain.
Surgical Intervention Options
These may include:
Cortisone injections into the affected joint to combat inflammation;
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