Living with Osteoarthritis: Diagnosis and Treatment Options

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More than 27 million Americans experience the pain and stiffness of osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis commonly affects the knees, hips, lower back, fingers, and feet, but it can occur in any joint. Likewise, it commonly affects people over 65, but people of all ages are susceptible.

Read on to learn about diagnosis, prevention, and osteoarthritis treatment options.

What is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease that occurs when the protective cartilage that cushions the end of a bone begins to wear away. Under normal conditions, this cartilage provides a smooth, gliding surface where bones interact in a joint. As this cartilage becomes damaged, movement becomes restricted and painful. Joints swell, bones break down, and bits of cartilage may break off and float free within the joint space.

Symptoms can vary depending on the joint affected and the severity of the condition. Generally pain and stiffness is most pronounced first thing in the morning and after a period of rest—but also after activity or at the end of the day. Joints become swollen. Range of motion becomes limited.

These symptoms tend not to occur suddenly, but to develop slowly over time.

Causes of Osteoarthritis

It was long believed that osteoarthritis resulted from wear and tear alone, but scientists now believe there are a variety of causes:

  • Genetics.  Unfortunately this is something we’re stuck with. If our genes predispose us to osteoarthritis, we need to remain aware of the possibility and take advantage of preventative options.
  • Weight.  Being overweight puts additional pressure on our joints, increasing not only the likelihood of developing osteoarthritis but also the symptomatic pain. Additionally, excess fat tissue in the body has been shown to produce inflammatory chemicals that can damage the joints.
  • Injury and Overuse. Athletic injury—even one that occurred many years ago—or careers that require the same repetitive motions over long periods of time can contribute to osteoarthritis.

Osteoarthritis Diagnosis

Your doctor will need to perform a thorough exam to determine the nature of any joint pain—whether it’s osteoarthritis or some other condition, how far the disease has progressed, which joints are affected, and what type of osteoarthritis treatment options might work best for you.

A physical examination will test your joints for range of motion, tenderness, swelling, and signs of damage. X-rays may also be ordered, or possibly an MRI or aspiration to examine the joint fluid.

Osteoarthritis Treatment

Osteoarthritis is a chronic condition without a cure, so osteoarthritis treatment is designed to manage symptoms. Key goals of treatment include managing pain, stiffness, and swelling, and improving joint flexibility and mobility.

One of the most effective ways of reaching these goals is to help the patient maintain a healthy weight and to make sure the patient gets sufficient proper exercise. This is also a good preventative strategy for those with a genetic predisposition to osteoarthritis.

Even though it might seem like exercise will stress already damaged joints, an aerobic walk or easy exercise class has been shown to reduce osteoarthritis pain. Exercise also contributes to maintaining a healthy weight. Other important exercises include strength training (which eases the burden on joints) and range of motion exercises for joint flexibility. Stretching exercises are great for managing stiffness.

A Physical Therapist can help develop an exercise plan appropriate for your condition. PTs can also devise adaptive strategies for managing pain, sometimes with heat or cold therapies or assistive devices.

Other treatment options for osteoarthritis include pain medications and injections, but these come with side effects and are not always effective. As a last resort if nothing else works, surgery might be a possibility. But we would advise against such extreme measures until you’ve given physical therapy a good, honest try first!