Osteoarthritis 101

Osteoarthritis is a prevalent disease that affects about 27 million Americans, and some estimates nearly everyone suffers from it to some degree once they hit age 70. Known as the "wear and tear" type of arthritis, osteoarthritis is a chronic condition that occurs when the cushiony cartilage between the bones wears away. This causes the bones to rub together and results in pain and stiffness in the joints.  Below are some of the most common questions about this disease.

Why do people get osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis has a genetic component, but that doesn't mean you'll get it just because your parents have it. Some risk factors are preventable, such as being overweight or engaging in intense exercise that places repeated stress on the joints. Fractures in the joints may predispose you to osteoarthritis. Certain medical conditions such as bleeding disorders may also affect joints and lead to osteoarthritis.

How do you know if you have osteoarthritis?

A typical symptom is a very deep, aching feeling in the joint. This is often worse in the morning and may also intensify if you put weight on the joint. The pain may worsen when you start moving around after being at rest, but over time the pain will be present whether you're active or not. The joints may swell and there may be a "grating" feeling when you move them. You may also experience swelling at the joints and limited movement. Or you may have no symptoms at all. While there's no blood test to determine if you have osteoarthritis, an x-ray can reveal the problem.

How can you treat osteoarthritis?

While osteoarthritis will not go away, there are things patients can do to reduce the wear and lessen their symptoms. A doctor-prescribed exercise plan can increase the strength of the joints and prevent the loss of muscle and joint fluidity that being sedentary causes. Swimming is an excellent exercise for osteoarthritis sufferers because it's easy on the joints. Running or jumping, on the other hand, are not recommended because of the joint strain that they require.

Over-the-counter pain relievers can help, as can corticosteroids injected into the joints. Certain skin creams may provide relief, and artificial joint fluid injected into the knee can keep symptoms at bay for months. Some osteoarthritis sufferers apply alternating heat and cold to their affected joints, which is known as a contrast bath. In severe cases, surgery may be needed to repair damaged joints.


Arthritis Foundation

National Institutes of Health