Osteoarthritis Risk Factors, Symptoms & Treatments
While there are many benefits to getting older, few people associate the aging process with all the good things that occur as a person approaches their golden years. Instead, aging is more often associated with aches and pains than grandkids and trips around the world.
Though such associations are unfortunate, they are rooted in the reality that aging often comes with a few ailments. One such ailment many older adults deal with is osteoarthritis, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, affects over 12 million men and women over the age of 65 in the United States alone. In Canada, one in 10 adults have osteoarthritis, proving this most common form of disease does not discriminate based on geography.
As prevalent as osteoarthritis might be, the millions of adults currently living with the condition are proof that it does not have to ruin a person's golden years. In fact, learning about osteoarthritis, its risk factors and prospective treatment options can help those adults currently living with the condition or those concerned about developing it down the road.
What is osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis, or OA, is also referred to as degenerative joint disease. OA occurs when cartilage begins to wear away. Cartilage is an essential part of each joint, helping to absorb shock and enabling the joint to move smoothly. OA most often occurs in the body's weight-bearing joints, which include the hips, knees and spine.
When a person has OA, the cartilage in a joint stiffens and loses it elasticity, which makes it more susceptible to damage. Joints will be stiff in the morning, a stiffness that can last roughly 15 to 20 minutes. As the day progresses and the joints are used more, the pain can intensify and swelling can occur. This is typically because, as the joint's cartilage continues to deteriorate, the tendons and ligaments are stretching and causing pain.
Are there symptoms of OA?
There are symptoms of OA, but these can vary greatly. Some people experience few symptoms of OA even if X-rays indicate their joints have undergone significant degeneration. In addition, the pain associated with OA is not necessarily constant. Some people can go years without experiencing any OA-related pain. Such instances are most common among people with OA of the hands and knees.
Those who do exhibit symptoms of OA can do so in a variety of ways. Adults with progressive cartilage degeneration in their knee joints might become bowlegged or develop a limp, which will worsen as the cartilage continues to degenerate.
OA of the spine often causes pain in the neck or lower back. Severe pain can be caused by bone spurs that form along the spine, and numbness and tingling of affected body parts can result as well.
Adults with OA of the hands can also exhibit symptoms, which are usually bony deformities along the joints of the fingers. Heberden's node is a bony enlargement at the small joint of the finger that occurs because of bone spurs resulting from OA in that joint. A bony knob that occurs at the middle joint of the finger, known as Bouchard's node, is also quite common among adults with OA of the hands. While none of these nodes is especially painful, they are associated with limited motion of the affected joint.
Patients with OA at the base of the big toes might notice the formation of a bunion, something that researchers suggest is possibly genetic, as it can be found in numerous female members of certain families.
The Arthritis Society notes that, early on, adults with OA will find their symptoms are typically only triggered by high impact activities. However, eventually the pain can be triggered by daily activities and not subside except with adequate rest. Some people even feel pain for most of the day, including when they are attempting to fall asleep at night.
Can OA be treated?
OA can be treated, but adults must recognize that it cannot be cured. As mentioned above, some symptoms can disappear for years at a time, but they will return. Treatment, if ceased, must then continue.
OA is most common among people who are overweight. One of the most effective ways to reduce pain from OA is to lose weight and get regular exercise. This takes pressure off joints that are being heavily taxed.
Though exercising when pain from OA is significant might seem counterintuitive, exercise is actually great for the joints. Each person is different, so consult a physician before beginning a new exercise regimen. However, do not shy away from aerobic exercises, including walking, swimming and riding a bicycle, or strength-training exercises like weightlifting. These exercises make the muscles stronger and more capable of supporting the joints. As with any exercise routine, do not forget to stretch.
Another treatment option for joints hurting because of OA is the application of a heating pad or a cold pack. Cold and heat can be applied several times per day (always cover the skin with a towel prior to application to avoid skin damage). Those nursing an injury should only apply cold for the first few days.
Medications are another treatment option for OA. Discuss medications with a physician to help determine the best course of action.
While surgery is not a necessary course of treatment for the majority of OA sufferers, for some it is. Surgical options may include a minimally invasive arthroscopic procedure, such as a joint fusion surgery (the joint is removed and bones are held together with screws, pins or plates), a complete or partial joint replacement, or an osteotomy (a section of the bone is cut and removed to improve joint alignment and stability).