What is it?
Osteoarthritis (or arthritis) is a diverse group of diseases manifesting in the joints due to dysfunction of the joint cartilage and the ends of the bones. Cartilage is a hard, slippery material that coats the end of a bone where it meets another bone. It allows bones to move smoothly against each other without rubbing together.
When cartilage is damaged, the bone in the joint tries to repair the damage. But instead of making things better, in osteoarthritis the bone grows abnormally and makes things worse.
Osteoarthritis is the end result of all forms of diseases in the joints. It is regarded as joint failure, and is most common in the joints of the knees, hips, hands, and spine.
When the problem occurs in the joint of the spine (the intervertebral disc), it is called spondylitis.
Osteoarthritis is a leading cause of disability in the elderly, and its occurrence is on the increase. It is the most common joint disease worldwide. It’s three times commoner in females than in males. Osteoarthritis of the knee is the commonest of all.
Age is the most important risk factor for osteoarthritis. Other things that make getting it more likely include:
• Being overweight
• Being a woman
• Being a white (Caucasian)
• Having osteoarthritis in your family
• Being a farmer, miner, shipyard or dockyard worker.
What are the symptoms?
Osteoarthritis presents as:
• Gradual onset pain increased with activity but relieved with rest.
• Short duration (less than 30 minutes) of early morning stiffness.
• Joint swelling
• Creakiness of the joint while moving it.
• Loss of usual joint function (i.e. inability to move the affected part normally).
• Knobbly joints
If these symptoms are present in a person of 40 years and above, the suspicion of osteoarthritis is high. If less than 40, the doctor will look for other causes such as repeated injury to the affected joint. They may order some tests, such as an x-ray and blood test, to check whether the symptoms are caused by osteoarthritis or not.
What treatments are available?
There is no cure for osteoarthritis but there are treatments that can help control the pain and discomfort it causes and help you move more freely. Some of these treatments involve taking medicines, and some people need to have surgery. But there are some non-medical treatments one can try:
Exercising moderately and regularly can help reduce pain and help you stay active and move more easily. Contrary to common fears, this will not cause more damage.
Weight loss if overweight.
Wearing a knee brace that aligns their joint properly can help.
If the above fail to control the symptoms enough, the doctor may prescribe some drugs such as:
- pain-relieving creams and gels that you rub onto the affected areas.
- painkillers in tablet form, such as paracetamol and NSAIDs, or opioid painkillers such as tramadol.
- injections in the joint of powerful anti-inflammatory drugs called corticosteroids for pain that flares up and becomes bad very suddenly
If the symptoms are severe, the doctor may suggest that a surgery be done. With this, badly damaged hip and knee joints can be replaced with artificial joints. This usually takes care of the symptoms completely. But it may not be suitable for everybody, and recovery can take several months.
There are other surgery options available with varying degrees of results. The doctor should decide which option is most suitable.
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What will happen to me?
Osteoarthritis is a disease that usually, but not always, progresses very slowly, often over many years. The pain and stiffness may even get better with time, especially with treatment.