Osteoarthritis

By:    Published: December 8, 2011

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Osteoarthritis is often abbreviated as OA and is a result of aging. It is also the most common form of arthritis, usually affecting the knees, hips, hands and spine. While there is no cure or known cause for this disease, there are steps of prevention and treatment therapies that can alleviate the symptoms.

Definition

Osteoarthritis is a painful joint disease that happens when cartilage in joints is broken down. Since cartilage normally serves as a shock-absorbing cushion between bones, its breakdown results in bones rubbing directly against one another during movement. Such friction causes the bone to thicken so that spurs (bony growths) may develop between joints. Stiffness, pain and loss of movement may occur as the joint lining becomes inflamed by cartilage breakdown and spur growth. Over time, such abrasions between bones may result in permanent joint damage.

Symptoms And Warning Signs

Some symptoms of OA may include the following:

  • Soreness in the joints after overuse or inactivity
  • Stiffness in the joints during periods of rest
  • Morning stiffness (usually lasting 30 minutes)
  • Pain in the joints, which usually escalates as the day goes on
  • Loss of joint movement range
  • Change in posture, walking and coordination due to pain and/or stiffness

Osteoarthritis most commonly appears in joints that normally bear the weight of the body, such as knees, hips, spine and feet. OA can also be evident in hands and fingers.

Causes And Risk Factors

As people grow older, it is normal for cartilage to lose its elasticity; however, intended stress or other factors can hasten cartilage breakdown and encourage OA. There are two types of osteoarthritis: primary and secondary.

  • Primary osteoarthritis is known as the natural "wear-and-tear" OA, and is usually associated with aging.
  • Secondary osteoarthritis may happen from a variety of modifiable risk factors, including prior injuries, weight or heredity.

While the specific cause of OA is still unknown, there are several factors that can increase risk:

  • Weight: Obese individuals are more at risk for OA in the knees, since these joints need to support a heavier body.
  • Genetic predisposition: OA is prone to run within families. Women are at higher risk of OA than men are. Inherited abnormal bone growths (such as bow-legged individuals) may also increase risks.
  • Past injury or joint overuse: Old injuries from sports or occupational hazards (such as hard labor, repetitive motion and frequent heavy lifting) contribute to the development of secondary OA.
  • Having other illnesses and deficiencies: People with other forms of arthritis have a greater chance of developing the disease. Also, deficiencies in certain hormones and vitamins C, D and E also contribute to OA development.

Prevention And Treatment

There are no known cures for osteoarthritis, but there are steps that can be taken to prevent or alleviate the symptoms.

  • Antioxidant intake and vitamins C, D and E are helpful in counteracting inflammation. Eating a balanced and healthy diet can also help.
  • Weight control may be the best self-management technique to alleviate OA symptoms, since losing weight will help alleviate stress on the joints.
  • Moderate exercise can also further strengthen the surrounding joint muscles and increase flexibility, thus reducing stiffness. However, it is important to consult a physician for a specific exercise plan, since overly rigorous exercise may worsen symptoms.
  • Physicians may prescribe medication to help reduce joint inflammation and pain. It can range from topical creams to oral tablets. Hormone therapies may also alleviate OA symptoms. Injections that help buffer cartilage may also be given if deemed appropriate by your doctor.
  • Physical therapies can target and strengthen certain muscles to increase flexibility, in turn helping joint mobility. Occupational therapy can also teach patients how to manage job responsibilities without further stressing or damaging the joints. Bracers and splints may be used in these therapies to help patients lead a more comfortable life with osteoarthritis.
  • For more serious cases of OA, surgery and joint replacement are also available. During surgery, doctors can either remove or repair damaged tissues and cartilage, or they can remove excessive bone spurs. However, it is important to consult the risks of surgery with your physician, as surgery is often considered a last resort.

Tests And Diagnosis

First, your doctor may perform a physical exam, where he or she will look for joint swelling, abnormal bony growth and loss of motion in certain joints. Then, lab tests and X-rays may be performed to confirm the diagnosis of OA. For example, tests such as joint aspiration (arthrocentesis) will take a fluid sample from between joints and analyze the sample for evidence of cartilage deterioration. X-rays and MRIs also scan for any type of abnormalities between joints that may suggest OA. Specifically, doctors will be looking for any joint enlargement, evidence of bone spurs and/or narrowing of joint space (due to loss of cartilage) on the X-ray and MRI.

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