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Understanding Osteoarthritis: Symptoms, causes and treatment

Dr. Ajay KohliNov 22, 2022

Over 500 million individuals were affected by Osteoarthritis in 2019. Unfortunately, symptoms of this disease tend to get worse with age and obesity. Treatments are available to manage symptoms, but damage to the joints caused is irreparable. Thus, maintaining a healthy weight and regular physical activity becomes important for preventing and slowing disease progression.

Osteoarthritis

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What is Osteoarthritis (OA)?

Osteoarthritis is a common debilitating joint condition that often attacks a person’s knees and feet, resulting in long-term pain and functional disability. It is a progressive chronic disease in which cartilage and other joint structures wear out over time and rub against one another. This unprotected friction between bones leads to pain, swelling, and other symptoms.

In a healthy joint, cartilage (a rubbery cushioned layer) covers the ends of the joint bones, reducing friction and acting as a "shock absorber" when the joints move. However, as you age, the cartilage thins down and loses its elasticity, leaving your joint prone to damage and causing Osteoarthritis.

Most people over the age of 50, especially women who have been through menopause, are more likely to develop Osteoarthritis. The illness commonly affects their hips, knees, hands, and spine. Joints in the lower back and neck are affected too. Even young adults and athletes in their 20s and 30s can develop Osteoarthritis for several underlying reasons, including joint injury and repeated joint stress.

Signs and symptoms of Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis symptoms are nebulous and may vary from patient to patient. Sharp, aching pain and stiffness in affected joints, especially after a prolonged period of inactivity, are the most noticeable indications, which may be felt more constantly as the disease advances. You may also have radiating pain that can be felt in other areas of the body. It is also possible for "bone-on-bone Osteoarthritis" in some cases to have few or no symptoms, which means symptoms are intermittent and often unpredictable.

Apart from pain, you can also experience the following.

  • Swelling in and around the joints

  • Weakness and balancing issues

  • Clicking and crackling sounds (Crepitus)

  • Restricted range of motions

  • Tenderness

  • Bone deformities which may or may not be painful

  • Presence of bony spurs underneath the skin near the affected joints

  • Trouble in holding or gripping the object

You may also feel sleepless, tired, and depressed as your symptoms worsen.

What causes Osteoarthritis?

We do not know what triggers Osteoarthritis. However, we know that the disease is age-related and damages all the structures within a joint, including the cartilage, tendons and ligaments, synovium (the lining of the joint), bone, and knee meniscus because of constant stress and use placed by the older people on joints. 

Types of Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is primarily of two types: Primary and Secondary. Primary Osteoarthritis is a more widespread subset of the disease, affecting multiple parts of the body, while secondary Osteoarthritis results from previous joint injuries, such as Paget's disease, inflammatory arthritis, osteochondritis dissecans, etc.

Treatment of Osteoarthritis

Since there is no cure for Osteoarthritis, most currently available treatments focus on managing symptoms. And to do so, your doctor may prescribe medication, therapy, and surgery depending on your age, occupation, activities, overall health, medical history, location, and severity of your Osteoarthritis. 

  • Medication: Pain-relieving medications are often prescribed to alleviate symptoms. But if your pain does not go away, you may receive prescriptions for antidepressants and steroid injections.

  • Therapy: Physical and occupational therapy are used to strengthen the muscles, increase your flexibility, and reduce pain by working on strategies to relieve joint stress from everyday activities. These therapies are usually helpful in managing the early stages of arthritis, but later stages of the disease require proper guidance from the therapist practitioners.

  • Surgical Procedures: When medication and physical therapy fail to relieve pain, the doctor may suggest surgery to realign the bone or replace a joint with an artificial one. Even so, artificial joints are prone to wear out over time or may get infected or cause blood clots, which means they must be replaced eventually.

Exercises like yoga that involve gentle stretching are also beneficial in managing Osteoarthritis. By stretching for 30 minutes daily, you can improve your motion and flexibility.

Diagnosis of Osteoarthritis

Visit your doctor for a physical examination if you suspect you have Osteoarthritis. Your doctor will check the affected joints for tenderness, swelling, redness, and flexibility. If the disease is suspected, they will opt for any of the below tests.

  • X-Ray: This will help show bone spurs (calcium deposits) around the joint that cause pain and tenderness.

  • MRI scan: It will provide detailed information about the disease’s progression.

  • Blood tests: Generally conducted to rule out other causes of joint pain, like rheumatoid arthritis, narrowing the diagnosis.

  • Joint fluid analysis: This technique will help determine whether your joint inflammation occurred due to an infection or gout, allowing you to pinpoint the cause.

How to prevent Osteoarthritis

Working to reduce modifiable lifestyle risk factors can aid in Osteoarthritis prevention. And to help you get started, here are some pointers.

  • Maintain a healthy weight to ease Osteoarthritis symptoms and slow the disease's progression.

  • Exercise regularly to keep your joints strong.

  • Eat a diet rich in vitamins C and D, as well as omega-3 fatty acids, which are anti-inflammatory and can help cartilage growth. 

  • If diabetic, get your blood sugar under control to avert cartilage stiffness and its early degeneration.

  • Rest enough after exercise to cool down the overuse of joints 

Risk factors for Osteoarthritis

A wide range of risk factors contributes to Osteoarthritis, including the following.

  • Age (50 and above)

  • Female gender (2 to 3 times more likely to develop Osteoarthritis)

  • Obesity

  • Long-term sitting 

  • Jobs requiring frequent squatting and kneeling

  • Walking or standing for a prolonged time

  • Sporting activities such as wrestling, boxing, pitching in baseball, cycling, parachuting, gymnastics, soccer, and football

  • Family history of Osteoarthritis

  • History of previous joint surgery

  • Inactive lifestyle

  • Congenital disabilities such as hip dysplasia

  • Diabetes

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Here’s a list of common questions and answers about Osteoarthritis.

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What is the difference between Osteoarthritis and other types of arthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease, meaning it gets worse over time and typically affects one joint on one side of the body at a time. In contrast, other types of arthritis (for example, rheumatoid arthritis) that affect millions worldwide are often auto-immune disorders, where a person’s immune system launches its assault on both joints, with symptoms developing in weeks or months.

What complications can Osteoarthritis cause?

Osteoarthritis, when not diagnosed early or left untreated, can lead to the following.

  • Prolonged aching pain

  • Falls

  • Reduced mobility

  • Joint misalignment

  • Decreased range of motion of the joint

  • Nerve damage

Can I get other chronic illnesses if I have Osteoarthritis?

It is possible to have other health issues if you have Osteoarthritis. Evidence suggests that someone with Osteoarthritis is more likely to develop age-related chronic health conditions such as Osteoporosis, heart disease, mental health problems, asthma, cancer, and so on, which can complicate disease management, increase health costs, and negatively impact the quality of life.

Is it safe to exercise if I have arthritis?

For people with arthritis, engagement in arthritis-friendly physical activity is helpful. Because regular physical activity can relieve arthritis pain and stiffness, boost energy levels, and make you feel better and lift your mood. Therefore, depending on your arthritis symptoms, adjust your activity level as your health allows. Being physically active is better than not being active.

Do I need to avoid certain foods if I have Osteoarthritis?

Certain foods can cause inflammation in the body. Therefore Osteoarthritis patients should avoid eating them. These include the following.

  • Refined wheat products such as pasta and pizza

  • Salty fried foods that can spike cholesterol levels

  • Red meat and egg yolks, which are loaded with omega-6 fatty acids

  • Sugary snacks

References

Disclaimer: The content on this page is generic and shared only for informational and explanatory purposes. Please consult a doctor before making any health-related decisions.

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