Also known as degenerative joint disease, osteoarthritis is a very common condition that affects the joints. The symptoms of osteoarthritis can appear unexpectedly as pain or swelling in any joint, but most commonly in the knees and hips. The onset of the disorder may seem sudden but pain from osteoarthritis usually occurs long after the disease is established. Risk factors for osteoarthritis include obesity, previous sports injury, weak muscles, and genetics.
When healthy, joints are assisted by cartilage that provides cushioned and smooth motion and flexibility. In osteoarthritis, cartilage is lost, bones become hardened and grow protrusions called osteophytes and joint fluid can become excessive. Pain and disability don’t always relate closely to the degree of arthritis.
Symptoms of osteoarthritis
Symptoms of osteoarthritis will vary from person to person. Joints may get swollen or sore after inactivity or extended activity. Initial symptoms include joint stiffness, limited motion, swelling and clicks or cracking sounds located at the joint. Although pain is often localised in the affected area, it typically occurs at the beginning of movement and warms up. It also tends to be noticeable after inactivity, for example, when getting out of bed, after getting out of a chair or the car.
Common areas affected by osteoarthritis include:
- Base of thumb
- Big toe
Osteoarthritis can make it difficult to perform the most mundane of chores, such as light housekeeping, driving, grasping objects, lifting, walking or climbing stairs. Additional detrimental health effects can ensue if osteoarthritis isn’t diagnosed and treated properly. Decreased mobility, function and impaired balance caused by osteoarthritis are symptoms known to result in accidents and falls, especially in older people.
Although osteoarthritis may be present, the symptoms and function can be treated and the effects greatly minimised. A diagnosis by a Doctor is necessary to determine the location and extent of the disorder. A range of information will assist diagnosis.
- Background history about the onset of osteoarthritis symptoms
- Description of symptoms
- Location of pain, soreness, swelling or other symptoms
- Other medical history, ongoing problems and current medications
- The affect of osteoarthritis on regular activities
A physical examination will determine the extent of joint motion, pain in affected areas, swelling, damage and alignment of the spine. Diagnostic tests include X-rays can confirm the diagnosis but are not always required. MR imaging is sometimes recommended to exclude other abnormalities, but is rarely indicated. Joint aspiration can also be performed by examining fluids drawn by needle from the affected area. This also helps to accurately rule out other rarer medical conditions as the cause of disease such as infection or gout.
Although there is no magic cure and osteoarthritis is considered a long-term disorder, there are treatments that can manage the symptoms and provide better quality of life. A specialist physician can formulate a working plan to manage symptoms, improve mobility, address weight issues and encourage exercise.
Appropriate exercise assists by strengthening muscles that surround affected joints. This will ease the load burden on joints, lessening the symptoms and reducing pain. Motion exercises assist by reducing stiffness and improving flexibility, while aerobic exercise improves stamina and also reduces weight associated with osteoarthritis. Moderate exercise is good for everyone, including people who suffer from osteoarthritis. The choice of exercise, however, must take into account the affected joints.
Pain and anti-inflammatory medications can be helpful for relieving osteoarthritis symptoms and are especially useful when coupled with a regular exercise routine. Sometimes injection therapies are indicated- cortisone, platelet rich plasma and viscosupplementation may all offer some benefit. Devices, like braces or orthotics sometime help.
A Physiotherapist or Exercise Physiologist can help in designing exercise programs for people with arthritis. Osteoarthritis can be debilitating but if managed correctly should also provide the impetus to commence healthy sports and lifestyle habits that can be maintained well into old age.