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What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, is a chronic degenerative joint disease that affects mostly middle-aged and older adults. Osteoarthritis is characterized by the breakdown of joint cartilage. Although it can occur in any joint, usually it affects the hands, knees, hips, or spine. The disease is also known as degenerative arthritis or degenerative joint disease.

Illustration of an Arthritic Hip Joint
Click Image to Enlarge

What causes osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis can be classified as primary or secondary. Primary osteoarthritis has an unknown cause, while secondary osteoarthritis is caused by another disease, infection, injury, or deformity. Osteoarthritis is characterized by the breakdown of cartilage in the joint. As the cartilage wears down, the bone ends may thicken, forming bony growths or spurs that interfere with joint movement. In addition, bits of bone and cartilage may float in the joint space and fluid-filled cysts may form in the bone, limiting joint movement. Several risk factors are associated with osteoarthritis, including the following:

  • Heredity. Slight joint defects or double-jointedness (laxity) and genetic defects may contribute to the development of osteoarthritis.

  • Obesity. Excessive weight can put undue stress on such joints as the knees over time.

  • Injury or overuse. Significant injury to a joint, such as the knee, can later result in osteoarthritis. Injury may also result from repeated overuse or misuse over a period of time.

What are the symptoms of osteoarthritis?

The most common symptom of osteoarthritis is pain after overuse of a joint or prolonged inactivity of a joint. Symptoms of osteoarthritis usually develop slowly over many years. The following are the most common symptoms of osteoarthritis. However each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Joint pain

  • Joint stiffness, especially after sleeping or inactivity

  • Limited joint movement as the disease progresses

  • Grinding of joints when moved (in more advanced stages of osteoarthritis) as the cartilage wears away

The symptoms of osteoarthritis may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

How is osteoarthritis diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, the most common way to diagnose osteoarthritis in a joint is by X-ray.

Treatment for osteoarthritis

Specific treatment for osteoarthritis will be determined by your doctor based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent of the condition

  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, and therapies

  • Expectation for the course of the condition

  • Your opinion or preference

The goals of treatment for osteoarthritis are to reduce joint pain and stiffness, and improve joint movement. Treatment may include:

  • Exercise. Regular, aerobic exercise, and stretching and strengthening exercises may help reduce the symptoms of and pain associated with osteoarthritis.

  • Heat treatment. Treating the affected joint with heat may help reduce pain.

  • Physical and occupational therapy. Physical and occupational therapy may help to reduce joint pain, improve joint flexibility when performing daily activities, and reduce joint strain. Splints and other assistive devices may also be used.  

  • Weight maintenance. Maintaining your recommended weight or losing weight (if overweight) may help to prevent or reduce the symptoms of osteoarthritis.

  • Medication. Medication for specific symptoms may include pain relievers (in pill form or topical cream) and anti-inflammatory medications, if inflammation is present.

  • Injections of thick liquids into the joints. These liquids mimic normal joint fluid.

  • Joint surgery. Surgery may be necessary to repair or replace a severely damaged joint.

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