Osteoarthritis is a degenerative form of arthritis. According to the Arthritis Foundation, osteoarthritis affects about 27 million people and is the most common chronic joint condition.
Osteoarthritis develops when the cartilage that covers the joints gradually wears away. As the cartilage breaks down, the bones under it rub together. Osteoarthritis tends to occur most frequently as people age. Additional risk factors for developing osteoarthritis include being overweight and having a prior joint injury. Research also indicates that there may be a genetic component that makes some people more prone to developing the condition.
Symptoms and Natural History
Pain and stiffness are the symptoms of osteoarthritis. Although it can vary, the joints most commonly affected are the hands, hips, knees and spine. Pain may be present during and after movement. Additional symptoms include tenderness when you press on the affected joints.
Symptoms almost always start out gradually. As time goes on, the joint may become stiffer, and range of motion can be effected. Some people also start to hear a cracking noise when the joint moves. Joints may also become swollen.
The severity of symptoms can vary. For example, some people with osteoarthritis only have mild symptoms that do not interfere with their everyday activities. Others may have symptoms so significant that their ability to function and quality of life is comprised. Depending on which joints are involved activities, such as walking, writing and bending can become difficult.
After taking a medical history, your doctor will perform an exam. During the exam, your doctor will evaluate the affected joints for tenderness and range of motion. X-rays are usually ordered to determine if the cartilage is deteriorating. In some cases, blood tests will also be recommended to rule out other conditions that cause joint pain. For example, a blood test to check your level of erythrocyte sedimentation rate may be ordered. An elevated SED rate can indicate rheumatoid arthritis as opposed to osteoarthritis.
Self-help Treatments for Osteoarthritis
Applying cold packs to the affected area may reduce swelling and pain. Using heat can also be effective to decrease stiffness and pain. Exercise can be beneficial for someone with osteoarthritis. Exercise can strengthen the muscles around the affected joint and improving stability. It can also increase flexibility and improve range of motion.
Over the counter gels and creams may also help decrease pain. Several different products are available that are applied directly to the affected joint. Although pain relief is only temporary, the creams usually do not have systemic side effects.
Standard Clinical Treatments for Osteoarthritis
Non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory medications are part of the standard treatment for osteoarthritis. Physical and occupational therapy may also be helpful to learn ways to modify everyday tasks, strengthen muscles around joints and improve range of motion.
Cortisone shots into the affected joint can also reduce pain. Keep in mind, cortisone can lead to joint damage, so there is a limit on how often you can repeat the shots.
When quality of life is greatly affected and pain is severe, joint replacement surgery may be an option depending on what joint is affected.
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. What is Osteoarthritis? http://www.niams.nih.gov/health_info/Osteoarthritis/osteoarthritis_ff.asp#d
American College of Rheumatology. Osteoarthritis. http://www.rheumatology.org/I-Am-A/Patient-Caregiver/Diseases-Conditions/Osteoarthritis