Are you experiencing joint pain or stiffness? It could be osteoarthritis.
This comprehensive guide will help you understand the symptoms, causes, and treatment options for osteoarthritis, as well as look at the impact this condition can have on daily life and when to get help.
What is osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis, affecting millions of people worldwide.
It is a degenerative joint disease that occurs when the articular cartilage, which cushions the ends of bones in a joint, breaks down.
This can lead to bone-on-bone contact, causing pain, stiffness, and other symptoms.
Causes and risk factors for osteoarthritis
The exact cause of osteoarthritis is unknown, but there is believed to be a combination of risk factors that increase your likelihood of developing it, including:
- Gender (women are more likely to develop osteoarthritis than men)
- Joint injuries or overuse
- Weak muscles
- Certain medical conditions, such as diabetes and gout
To learn more about what osteoarthritis is, explore our blog: What is osteoarthritis? Do I have it?
Symptoms of osteoarthritis
The symptoms of osteoarthritis can vary depending on the severity of the condition, and they build over time.
Some common symptoms include:
- Joint pain – pain in the affected joint is the most common symptom of osteoarthritis. The pain may be mild or severe and can be aggravated by movement or activity.
- Unstable joints – feeling as though your affected joint is unstable or loose
- Stiffness – stiffness in the affected joint is another common symptom of osteoarthritis. The stiffness may be worse in the morning or after periods of inactivity.
- Grating feeling—you might feel a grating sensation when you use or bend an affected joint.
- Swelling – swelling in the affected joint can occur due to inflammation caused by osteoarthritis.
- Bone spurs – bone spurs are small pieces of extra bone around your joints, which can feel like hard lumps.
- Limited range of motion – osteoarthritis can cause a limited range of motion in the affected joint, making it difficult to move the joint freely.
- Cracking or popping sounds – some people with osteoarthritis may experience cracking or popping sounds when they move the affected joint.
The most common areas of the body where osteoarthritis can develop are the:
- Hips, including the surrounding areas
- Knees, resulting in a grating feeling when you move your knee
- Fingers, with bone spurs forming on your joints
- Feet, especially in your big toe and ankles
Impact of osteoarthritis on daily life
Osteoarthritis can have a significant impact on your daily life, including:
- Difficulty with daily activities – pain, stiffness, and limited range of motion can make it difficult to perform daily activities such as walking, climbing stairs, and even getting dressed.
- Weight gain – painful joints can make it a lot harder to exercise regularly, which can lead to an increase in weight or obesity.
- Regular falls – osteoarthritis can impact your overall balance and joint stability, making falls a lot more common.
- Emotional impact – osteoarthritis can also have an emotional impact, causing feelings of frustration, anxiety, and depression.
- Sleep disturbances – pain and discomfort caused by osteoarthritis can interfere with sleep, leading to fatigue and other health problems.
- Reduced ability to work – osteoarthritis can also impact work, and may make it difficult to perform job duties. This could lead to missed workdays. If you are living with osteoarthritis and need help finding or keeping work, Disability Employment Services like APM can help.
Although these impacts can be challenging, there are plenty of ways to effectively manage your symptoms and overall condition, to help you get back to living an active, more comfortable life.
Treatment options for osteoarthritis
There are several treatment options available for osteoarthritis, depending on how severe your symptoms are.
It's important to visit a healthcare provider before you try any of these treatments, as they will be able to provide you with a proper diagnosis and treatment plan that's right for you.
The aim of medication for osteoarthritis is to relieve pain and inflammation in your joints.
There are several options that may be recommended by your GP or specialist, including:
- Analgesics – used to reduce pain
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (like ibuprofen) – can be obtained over the counter and are used to reduce inflammation
- Counterirritants – topical medications that create a mild burning sensation to distract from the pain
- Corticosteroids – powerful anti-inflammatory drugs that can be taken orally or injected directly into the affected area
It's critical that you see a professional medical practitioner before you try any treatment options, as they will be able to determine which option will be the best and most effective for you.
Physiotherapy, or physical therapy, is a form of treatment that focuses on restoring movement and function to the body.
It often involves exercises that help to strengthen muscles, as well as increase your range of motion.
Additionally, physiotherapists may recommend the use of braces or shoe inserts to help support the body and reduce pain.
Maintaining a healthy weight, staying active, and avoiding activities that aggravate the affected joint can help manage symptoms of osteoarthritis.
As recommended by the Arthritis Foundation, a great exercise plan should include:
- Strengthening exercises, to build muscle strength to ease pressure on painful joints
- Stretching, to help reduce stiffness and keep movement in your joints
- Cardio exercises, to help you maintain a healthy weight
- Balance exercises, to prevent falling
Practicing self-care habits can help slow the development of osteoarthritis and delay surgery.
This includes maintaining a healthy weight, which can help reduce the stress placed on joints, as well as maintaining range of motion to keep joints flexible and strong.
Additionally, it is important to protect joints by avoiding activities that may cause injury or strain, and being sure to warm up and cool down before taking part in physical activity.
If your osteoarthritis is severe, joint surgery may be required.
This type of surgery can be used to repair damaged joints, replace worn-out joints (such as a hip or knee replacement), or realign joints that have become misaligned.
It is important to note that joint surgery is a major medical procedure and should only be done when other treatments have not been successful.
When to seek help for osteoarthritis
If you are experiencing any pain in your joints, or any of the other symptoms of osteoarthritis we've mentioned, it's worth visiting your GP for an assessment.
They will be able to determine your diagnosis, by conducting a physical examination, x-rays and other imaging tests.
The sooner a diagnosis is confirmed, the better chance you'll have of effectively managing the condition before it gets worse.
While living with osteoarthritis can be challenging, with an early diagnosis, treatment plan and the right support, managing this condition is extremely achievable.