Understanding osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis causes painful joint swelling and restricts your mobility. Don't let osteoarthritis get the best of you—here's what you need to know.

Understanding osteoarthritis

What is osteoarthritis?

  • You're not jumping out of bed in the morning anymore. How can you? You feel as stiff as a wind-up toy, and you wouldn't mind a wind-up to get you going.
  • If you're over 40, that morning creaking could be a sign of osteoarthritis—a wearing away of the cartilage that lines your joints.
  • The painful condition can affect any joint, but especially bedevils hips, knees, hands, and spine.

Symptoms

  • It's not just achy morning stiffness that tips you off to the condition. You may notice that a joint is tender or swollen, or that you can't bend it as well as you used to. You may even feel a grating sensation from roughened cartilage or even bones rubbing together.
  • On X-rays, your doctor may see bone spurs—hard bony extensions that form around the joint—and narrowing of the joint space.

Causes

  • Certain factors increase the risk of osteoarthritis: age, gender (many more women than men have osteoarthritis), obesity, deformed bones or defective cartilage, and joint damage (that old basketball injury coming back to haunt you).
  • Other diseases can also affect the joints, such as gout or rheumatoid arthritis.

Is there a cure?

  • There's no cure for osteoarthritis, but you can ease the ache and get back to doing the things you love—from playing fetch with the dog to playing tennis.
  • "The biggest thing is lifestyle modification," says Theodore W. Parsons III, MD, chairman of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Michigan. "If you exercise, take anti-inflammatories, and lose weight, you can have a positive impact on the pain of osteoarthritis."

Treatment options

If initial self-help measures don't provide enough pain relief, your doctor can offer more powerful options.

  • Tests: Before he prescribes anything, he'll examine the joint, possibly taking X-rays to check for narrowing space within a joint, which is a sign of cartilage erosion. The X-rays also check for bone spurs, the bony outgrowths around a joint. He may take samples of the fluid around the joint to rule out other conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, a more serious autoimmune disease, or gout.
  • Prescription: Once he confirms osteoarthritis, he may prescribe one or several treatments and should go over all their risks and benefits with you.
  • Self-help: If you're like most people with osteoarthritis, your best bet for relief will be the everyday measures you take yourself. You'll have the condition for life, so it's important to put in the time and effort to discover which combination of approaches works best for you. Don't rely on pills alone, and don't give up. There is plenty you can do to manage the pain, increase your everyday mobility, and even slow the progression of the disease.
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