Definition & Overview

Osteoarthritis, which is one of the most common forms of arthritis, is a generative joint disease that affects the articular cartilage. The condition, which is one of the ten most disabling diseases in the world, is the result of the breakdown of the cartilage, which cushions and protects the joints. As a result, the bones tend to rub against each other, causing friction during movement leading to pain and stiffness. Based on studies, majority of people suffering from this condition have limitations in movement while the rest are unable to perform their major daily life activities.

Although it frequently occurs in adults aged 55 and above, anyone is susceptible to this condition. Many patients develop this type of arthritis particularly in the knees, carpal joints, spine and hips (usually at the lower back). Osteoarthritis can also affect the small joints of the fingers (esp. the thumb), toes, ankle, and neck.

Causes of Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is mainly caused by damage to the cartilage, which protects the joints. When the cartilage is damaged, joints are no longer able to glide smoothly during movement causing inflammation, pain, and reduced mobility. Despite advances in the field of medicine, the exact cause as to why this breakdown occurs is still not known. However, several factors are thought to increase one’s chances of developing this condition. These include age, obesity, joint overuse, genetics, previous injury, and weak muscles. Individuals, whose jobs involve repetitive use of a particular joint, as well as those with bone deformities, are more at risk of osteoarthritis.

Symptoms of Osteoarthritis

The symptoms of osteoarthritis usually develop in a gradual manner. During its early stages, symptoms can come in a form of occasional stiffness or soreness in the joint, oftentimes occurring after strenuous activities or prolonged inactivity. The stiffness is often intermittent and goes away after some time. Osteoarthritis-related pain usually becomes worse towards the end of the day.

In time, osteoarthritis can become severe with pain worsening at every onset. Aside from pain and stiffness, tenderness, loss of flexibility, and grating sensations may also be felt. Sometimes, patients may feel lump-like swelling around the affected joint. Without proper pain management, the pain can cause difficulty in walking, sleeping, climbing the stairs or performing everyday tasks.

Who to See and Types of Treatments Available

Osteoarthritis usually starts as an easily manageable pain. However, if you are experiencing pain in one particular joint at an abnormal frequency, or if you are dealing with pain that disrupts your everyday activities, it is highly advisable to consult a general practitioner or a family doctor right away. Depending on your condition, your GP may refer you to osteoarthritis specialists such as a rheumatologist or orthopedic surgeon.

During initial consultation, you will be asked to provide basic information related to your condition, such as a description of your symptoms, frequency of pain, other medical problems, and medications you are currently taking. Your specialist will closely examine the affected joint and recommend imaging and lab tests to get a more definitive diagnosis. Image testing can come in the form of x-ray or MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), both of which provide an image of the bone and soft tissues around the joint.

Osteoarthritis is considered a long-term condition. To this day, there is no cure for it but it doesn’t necessarily get worse over time. With proper management, the pain becomes easier to live with and symptoms can gradually improve. Mild symptoms of osteoarthritis can be managed through proper exercise, weight loss, a well-balanced diet, and appropriate footwear. Managing stress and depression can also improve arthritis symptoms.

For more serious cases, the use of braces or other mechanical devices, intake of pain medication such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are usually recommended, along with structured exercises with the guidance of a physical, occupational, or physiotherapist. In even more severe cases, surgery for repair or replacement of the damaged joint may be recommended.

Osteoarthritis is not an easy condition to live with, especially when it disrupts one’s daily activities and causes reduced mobility. Patients suffering from its symptoms are highly advised to consult a doctor right away. With medical help and support from loved ones, people with osteoarthritis may continue to lead a healthy and active lifestyle.

References:

  • Scott DL, Wolfe F, Huizinga TW. Rheumatoid arthritis. Lancet. 2010 Sep 25;376(9746):1094-108.
  • Boonen A, Severens JL. The burden of illness of rheumatoid arthritis. Clin Rheumatol. 2011 Mar;30 Suppl 1:S3-8.
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