October 6, 2021

What is osteoarthritis?

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Pain and inflammation of the joints are chronic problems with this condition. Here’s what can help.

Arthritis causes pain and inflammation in joints. Osteoarthritis is the most common type. It is a long-term (chronic), degenerative joint disease that gets worse over time. Osteoarthritis causes the breakdown of joint cartilage. It can occur in any joint, but most often affects the hands, knees, hips or spine. 

Causes of osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis can be called primary or secondary. Primary has no known cause. Secondary is caused by another disease, infection, injury or deformity. 

As the cartilage in a joint wears down, the bone ends may thicken and form bony growths. These are bone spurs. Bone spurs can limit joint movement. Bits of bone and cartilage may float in the joint space. Fluid-filled cysts may form in the bone. These can also limit joint movement. 

Osteoarthritis mostly affects people who are middle age and older.  The risk factors include: 

  • Heredity. Some genetic problems may lead to osteoarthritis. These include slight joint defects or joints that are too loose. 
  • Extra weight.  Being overweight can put additional stress on joints, such as the knees, over time. 
  • Injury. Severe injury to a joint, including fracture or trauma, can lead to osteoarthritis. 
  • Wear and tear over time.

Symptoms

The most common sign of osteoarthritis is pain after overuse or inactivity of a joint. Symptoms usually increase slowly over years. Symptoms can occur a bit differently in each person. They may include:

  • Joint pain. 
  • Joint stiffness, especially after sleep or inactivity. 
  • Less movement in the joint over time. 
  • A grinding feeling in the joint when moved, as the cartilage wears away (in later stages). 

These symptoms can also be caused by other problems besides osteoarthritis. Diagnosing Osteoarthritis requires a health history, a physical exam and most likely X-rays.

Treating osteoarthritis

Treatment depends on symptoms, age and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is. The goal of treatment is to ease joint pain and stiffness and improve joint movement. Treatment may include: 

  • Exercise. Regular exercise may help ease pain and other symptoms. This may include stretching and strength exercises. 
  • Heat. Treating the joint with heat may help ease pain. 
  • Physical and occupational therapy. These types of therapy may help ease joint pain, improve joint flexibility and reduce joint strain. You may use splints and other assistive devices.   
  • Weight maintenance. Losing weight, if needed, may help to prevent or ease symptoms. A combination of low-impact quadriceps exercises such as a stationary bike or an elliptical is strongly recommended. Higher impact exercises may worsen osteoarthritis symptoms and make it challenging to continue with weight-loss.
  • Medication. These may include acetaminophen and anti-inflammatory medicines. You might take these in pill form, or as a cream to rub into the skin.
  • Injections. There are several types of injections that can provide pain relief and more supple motion in a joint. A cortisone injection can provide some relief for up to six months. Patients often require a cortisone injection before they can try a different type. Injections are a common treatment leading up to or instead of surgery
  • Surgery. You may need an operation to replace a damaged joint. 

Living with osteoarthritis

Because osteoarthritis causes joints to get worse over time, it can cause disability. It can cause pain and movement problems. These can make you less able to do normal daily activities and tasks. 

Although there is no cure for osteoarthritis, it’s important to help keep joints working. You can ease pain and inflammation. Create a treatment plan with your health care provider. Make changes to your life that can improve your comfort level and functioning. These changes may include: 

  • Losing weight. Extra weight puts more stress on weight-bearing joints, such as the hips and knees – up to six times your body weight while squatting, for example. 
  • Exercising. Some exercises may help ease joint pain and stiffness. The focus should be on low-impact exercises (no jumping or running) that work the thigh muscles, such as cycling or using an elliptical machine. Swimming, walking, low-impact aerobic exercise and range-of-motion exercises, and gentle stretches, may also help keep the joints flexible. 
  • Balancing activity and rest. To reduce stress on your joints, alternate between activity and rest. This can help protect your joints and ease your symptoms. 
  • Using assistive devices. Canes, crutches and walkers can help to keep stress off certain joints and improve balance. 
  • Using adaptive equipment. Tools that help you reach and grab items let you extend your reach and reduce straining. Dressing aids can help you get dressed more easily. 
  • Managing use of medicines. Long-term use of some anti-inflammatory medicines can lead to stomach bleeding and kidney problems. Work with your health care provider to create a plan to reduce this risk. 
A middle-aged couple take a selfie standing outdoors on a deck in autumn.

If you have painful, arthritic joints that limit your movement, Vanderbilt can help you move more easily and comfortably. Specialists in our Joint Replacement Program provide a range of treatments, from arthroscopy to total hip and knee replacements. Our personalized care will help you get back to your normal activities as soon as possible.

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