Osteoarthritis is a degenerative disorder of the joints and surrounding bone that produces pain and stiffness. It is common in seniors, but can occur much earlier. It affects men and women equally often, although men tend to have symptoms at an earlier age than do women.
Contrary to popular belief, osteoarthritis is not an inevitable result of aging and years of wear and tear on the joints. It appears to be caused by problems with the body systems responsible for the development of cartilage and bone. These problems lead to thin and pitted cartilage and overgrown but weak bone, both of which contribute to reduced function and pain in the joint.
The sites most often affected by osteoarthritis are
- joints of the fingers and toes
- hip, knee, or ankle
The first symptoms include pain with exercise and stiffness upon rising in the morning or after a period of inactivity (such as sitting in a car or airplane). As the condition worsens, the person may feel increased pain and instability in the joint and/or a scraping or grating sensation with movement. Eventually, the joint may become enlarged or “frozen”.
There are two aims in the treatment of osteoarthritis:
Rehabilitation involves reducing the burden on the arthritic joint and maintaining its mobility and strength. For example, if you have arthritis in a knee (a weight-bearing joint) losing a few pounds often helps to reduce pain. Special stretches and exercises can help increase the range of motion in the joint and strengthen the muscles that surround it.
It is usually a good idea to have a program designed for you by a physiotherapist. Sometimes a doctor or physiotherapist will suggest you use special equipment, such as a knee brace or orthopedic mattress. A person with arthritis should try to maintain a healthy level of activity because being sedentary can worsen the condition.
To manage pain caused by minor osteoarthritis, your doctor may suggest you take acetaminophen or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as aspirin or ibuprofen. If these do not work, you may be given a prescription for a stronger NSAID or for a new type of anti-arthritis drug called a COX-2 inhibitor.
Sometimes, a physician will inject an osteoarthritic joint with a hydrocortisone preparation or a liquid that replaces the lubricating fluid in the joint. These measures provide relief for a few months, but are not possible for all joints nor in all cases of osteoarthritis.
Surgical replacement of arthritic joints is an option your physician may suggest if other treatments do not alleviate symptoms of osteoarthritis. Hip replacement and knee replacement are very common and effective procedures. Surgery to replace other joints is also possible.