Osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, has affected millions of people worldwide. Referred to as wear-and-tear arthritis, osteoarthritis takes place when the protective cartilage, at the ends of the bones, gets worn out over time.
Osteoarthritis can damage any joint in the body but it commonly affects joints in the hands, lower back, hips, neck and knees.
It gradually gets worse over time and it has no cure but osteoarthritis treatments can slow the progression of the disease, relieve pain and improve joint function.
Possible Causes of Osteoarthritis
Osteoarthritis happens when the cartilage that cushions the ends of bones in your joints deteriorates. This cartilage is a firm, slippery tissue that allows virtually friction-less joint motion.
With osteoarthritis, the slick surface of the cartilage becomes rough and if the cartilage wears down completely, you may be left with bone rubbing on bone causing excruciating pain.
Experts cannot find any causes why cartilage breakdown happens but aging, joint injury, being overweight, and genetics are observed to have contributed to the reason.
Symptoms of Osteoarthritis
Osteoarthritis symptoms develop slowly and get worse over time. Signs and symptoms of osteoarthritis include:
- Pain. The joints will feel intense pain and a burning or sharp sensation.
- Tenderness and Swelling. The joint and muscle around it may feel tender and appear swollen when you touch or hold it.
- Stiffness. Joint stiffness is noticeable after waking up from sleep or nap, or after a period of long inactivity.
- Muscle weakness. The muscles around and near the joint will feel weaker due to the pain.
- Deformed joints. Joints get deformed due to the swelling and appear deformed due to inactivity.
- Reduced range of motion and loss of use of the joint. Intense pain will hinder any possible movements and as it gets worse, it will cause less mobility and inability to move the affected joint.
- Cracking and creaking.Affected joints may make crunching, creaking sounds due to the friction.
- Loss of flexibility.This occurs once the swelling has gotten worse and movement is difficult.
- Grating sensation.This is caused by the absence of the friction preventing film and all that is left are scratching joints which caused pain.
Diagnosis and Treatment
During physical exams, doctors closely examine the affected joint, check for tenderness, swelling or redness and will also check the joint’s range of motion. Eventually, the doctor will require imaging and lab tests. Doctors will want to see the swollen joints through imaging tests. Examples include:
- X-rays. Cartilage can’t be seen with X-ray images but the loss of cartilage is revealed by a narrowing of the space between the bones in your joint.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). MRI uses radio waves and a strong magnetic field in producing detailed images of the bone and soft tissues, including cartilage.
Blood analysis or joint fluid can help pinpoint the diagnosis:
- Blood tests. This tests the blood chemistry and contributing factors of osteoarthritis.
- Joint fluid analysis. Doctors use needles to draw fluid from the affected joint. Examining and testing the fluid determines the cause if there’s inflammation and if your pain is caused by gout or an infection.
General Advice to Caring for Someone with Osteoarthritis
There are various medications for arthritis but usually require several trials to see which works. Treatments may include:
- Using pain medicine. If the pain is mild, over-the-counter pain medicines such as acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol) and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may help. Commonly used NSAIDs include naproxen (e.g., Aleve), ibuprofen (e.g., Advil and Motrin)and aspirin (e.g., Bayer and Bufferin). If these do not work on the pain, a stronger prescription medicine needed.
- Using heat or ice on the painful joint. Heat helps loosen the joints before any activity. Ice works as a pain reliever after activity. Doctors may give gels or creams that are rubbed on the joint to prevent further pain.
- Losing weight, if you’re overweight. Losing weight helps by taking off the stress on the joints.
- Exercising to strengthen your muscles. Having stronger thigh muscles helps reduce stress on the knees. Walking, biking, and swimming are good leg muscle building activities. But before engaging with such activities, consult with doctors about the kinds of activities are best for you.
- Having surgery. This is a final option if none of the available treatments work.