The most common form of arthritis is osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint disease sometimes called “wear-and-tear” arthritis because it is often seen in people as they reach middle age and older. Osteoarthritis develops as the cartilage that cushions the ends of the bones between the joints starts to break down and wear away. Eventually the bones begin to rub against each other, causing pain and inflammation.
Research indicates that as many as 30 million adults in the United States have osteoarthritis. It is most common in the knees, hips, hands, spine, and toes, but this chronic condition can affect any joint in the body.
May is National Arthritis Awareness Month, dedicated to raising awareness about the leading cause of disability in the United States, so let’s take a closer look at osteoarthritis and its causes, symptoms and treatment options.
What Causes Osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis is a slowly progressing joint disease that does not have a specific cause, but there are several factors that can increase the risk of developing this condition or making it worse:
- Advancing age: Osteoarthritis occurs most often in people older than 50.
- Obesity: Extra weight puts additional strain on weight-bearing joints like hips and knees.
- Injuries: Traumatic sports-related injuries, such as dislocated joints or ligament injuries, can put people at greater risk for developing osteoarthritis. Or, the joints may suffer more progressive injury after years of participating in sports or high-impact activities.
- Overuse: Standing for long periods, bending, squatting or other repetitive stresses to the joints can make cartilage wear away faster. Poor posture when sitting or standing has similar effects.
- Gender: Women are more likely to develop osteoarthritis, especially later in life.
- Family history and genetics: People who have family members with osteoarthritis are more likely to develop it as well. Certain genetic traits can also cause abnormal growths of bones or cartilage, for example, that increase the risk of osteoarthritis.
What are the Signs and Symptoms of Osteoarthritis?
Symptoms of osteoarthritis often develop slowly and get worse over time. Some of the most common complaints include:
- Joint pain and tenderness, although not all patients feel pain
- Stiffness and decreased range of motion
- Swollen joints
- A grating or scraping sensation in the joint
- Clicking or cracking sounds
- Bony growths, or spurs, at the edge of joints
- Joint instability or weakness
Osteoarthritis involves only the joints. Its symptoms do not include low-grade fever or skin changes as opposed to other forms of arthritis such as rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that can affect the entire body. Morning stiffness is another common symptom of rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis that is generally not present in osteoarthritis.
How is Osteoarthritis Treated and Managed?
Unfortunately, joint damage caused by osteoarthritis is not reversible, and this condition does not have a cure. The primary goals for treatment are typically to control symptoms and maintain quality of life with medications, lifestyle changes and managed self-care, including the common nonsurgical therapies listed below. However, if conservative treatment methods are not effective, or if the bone damage is quite advanced, joint replacement surgery may be an option to restore function to the affected joints.
Common nonsurgical therapies for osteoarthritis include:
- Over-the-counter medications: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen or naproxen, can help relieve discomfort and reduce swelling. Acetaminophen can also be effective for pain.
- Exercise: Increasing your low-impact activity can help loosen muscles and decrease joint pain and stiffness, not to mention provide a more positive outlook. Swimming or walking around the block for 20-30 minutes are good choices. You may enjoy the gentle stretching of tai chi or yoga as well.
- Physical therapy: Working with a physical therapist may be beneficial to improve your range of motion and strengthen muscles.
- Rest: Although it’s important to stay active regularly, resting and getting plenty of sleep can help relieve the stress on your joints and body.
- Hot and cold therapy: Heat may help stiff, aching joints and muscles; cold is effective for swelling and acute pain.
- Weight management: Keeping extra weight off inflamed joints will help with mobility and pain.
- Assistive devices: Medical equipment such as canes, crutches, splints, braces and shoe inserts can help you get around more easily as needed.
- Corticosteroids: Typically used short term to avoid side effects, injections can be fast and effective at reducing inflammation in a single joint. Oral medications such as prednisone are an option as well.
- Biologic injections: These types of injections represent an exciting new approach known as regenerative orthopedics. In the setting of arthritis, we are using stem cell injections to improve the health of the cartilage, with the hope that stem cell injections will actually be able to regrow cartilage that has been damaged by arthritis. With blood-based injections, we take a sample of the patient’s own blood to isolate certain cells and inject them into the arthritic joint – this provides us the best opportunity to decrease inflammation caused by arthritis. I explain more about stem cell and blood-based injections in the videos below:
For patients with knee arthritis, we offer robotic-assisted surgery for total and partial knee replacements. In the following video, I explain the difference between partial and total knee replacements:
About the Author
Scott A. Wingerter, M.D., Ph.D. is a board-certified and fellowship-trained orthopedic surgeon specializing in joint preservation and replacement surgery. His focus is on total joint replacement of the hip and knee, hip resurfacing, partial knee replacement, minimally invasive surgery, and hip arthroscopy.
The medical information contained in the Dickson-Diveley Orthopaedics website is provided to increase your knowledge and understanding of orthopedic conditions. This information should not be interpreted as a recommendation for a specific medical or surgical treatment plan. As each patient may have specific symptoms or associated problems, the treatment regimen for a specific patient may not be the proper treatment for another.
Gaining knowledge and understanding of a particular problem or condition is the first step in any medical treatment plan. We believe the information presented on our website will be helpful for those individuals experiencing hand and wrist diseases, injuries, or other related problems. However, this information is not intended to replace the advice of your family physician. You are encouraged to consult with your physician to discuss any course of treatment presented or suggested.