You’re at risk for osteoarthritis if …
- You’re over 60. Because osteoporosis is the result of years of wear and tear, the older you are, the more likely you are to develop it.
- You’re a woman. Osteoarthritis strikes more women than men in cases that occur after middle age.
- You’ve had a cartilage injury. That’s why athletes and physical laborers are particularly vulnerable to osteoarthritis at an early age.
- You’re overweight. Putting an added burden on weight-bearing joints, especially the knees, can predispose you to the disease.
- You have a knee deformity, such as bowlegs or knock-knees. These conditions tend to encourage cartilage deterioration.
The surgical route
When pain makes even minor movement unbearable, going so far as to disrupt your sleep, one of these surgical techniques may be the answer:
- Arthroplasty. The surgeon will re-form the joint by smoothing rough areas.
- Total joint replacement (replacement arthroplasty). Usually performed on the knee or hip but also possible on fingers, this technique entails replacing the entire joint or part of the joint with a metal and/or plastic device. The parts are anchored with a special glue and generally need to be repaired or replaced after about 12 years.
- Fusing. This procedure immobilizes osteoarthritic joints, usually in the hand, big toe and thumb.
- Tibial osteotomy. A preventive measure, tibial osteotomy corrects bowlegs or knock-knees (predisposing conditions) by removing some bone from the upper side of the shin.
Known as the “wear-and-tear” variety of arthritis because it’s the result of years of use, osteoarthritis—the most common form of arthritis—can creep up so quietly that you might not suspect you have it until bending your knee, flicking your finger or taking a walk becomes a painful ordeal.
What is it?
Even though arthritis literally means inflammation of the joints, osteoarthritis involves no inflammation at all. Instead, it’s a progressive disease that begins when cartilage, the soft connective tissue that cushions joints, starts to break down from simple use. Without the proper cushioning, joint movement becomes painful, and bones compensate for cartilage loss by growing bony lumps or spurs, called osteophytes, along the sides.
Joints most susceptible to osteoarthritis are the knees, hips, neck and spine, thumb and big toe.
Spotting the symptoms
Unlike rheumatoid arthritis and other arthritic conditions, in its earliest stages osteoarthritis produces pain only when a joint is moved. A woman with osteoarthritis of the knee, for example, will experience discomfort only when she’s walking. Bony lumps that develop on the end and middle joints of the finger, known as Heberden’s and Bouchard’s nodes, respectively, are another telltale sign of osteoarthritis. Over time, these nodes actually help ease pain and stiffness by stabilizing the joint in the absence of cartilage. Finally, osteoarthritis even has a sound all its own. Without the buffer that cartilage ordinarily provides, crepitus, a distinctive grating noise, can be heard whenever an affected joint moves.
Seeing your doctor
Even if your doctor suspects you have osteoarthritis—your medical history along with a physical exam will present pretty clear evidence—he or she will want further proof. A blood test will distinguish osteoarthritis from similar disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, bursitis or gout, and X-rays or an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) will give your physician a better look at the actual joints.
Banishing the pain
Unfortunately, while a broken bone can heal itself, cartilage can’t. Yet even though there’s no actual cure for osteoarthritis, the disease does not necessarily condemn its sufferers to a lifetime of pain.
In fact, the condition is rarely crippling, and because the symptoms come and go over the years, some patients manage with little or no treatment. Nonetheless, there are ways to ease the discomfort:
- Heating pads, hot-water bottles and soaking in a hot bath can help relieve pain.
- Muscle-strengthening exercises can restore range of motion. Your doctor or physical therapist will prescribe a specific routine depending on which joints are affected.
- Swimming and other water exercises are especially helpful since they provide non-weight-bearing activity.
- Losing weight can’t reverse osteoarthritis in joints already affected, but doing so may delay deterioration in other joints.
- Practicing perfect posture (keeping shoulders back, stomach and buttocks tucked in and back straight) can relieve osteoarthritis of the spine.
- In severe cases, surgery is a worthwhile option.)
- Aspirin and other anti-inflammatories can ease pain, and in severe cases, particularly those affecting weight-bearing joints like knees or muscles, steroid injections can help. Several new drugs are on the market offering promise to osteoarthritis sufferers.
Although osteoarthritis affects millions, there’s no reason to accept it as a natural consequence of aging. Remember, cartilage does not ordinarily deteriorate as you get older, and staying slim and active can certainly help lower your risk of developing the disease.