Table of Contents
Definition of Osteoarthritis
Osteoarthritis is a condition of progressive degeneration of the joints. Osteoarthritis tends to develop in adults age 60 and older and to affect joints subject to excessive stress throughout life, often in occupational settings. Recreational and athletic activities may also result in osteoarthritis.
The fingers, cervical spine (neck), knees, hips, and lumbar spine (low back) are most commonly affected. About 20 million Americans have osteoarthritis.
Osteoarthritis damages cartilage, the thin layer of smooth connective tissue that coats the ends of bones with the joints. Cartilage is so dense that it does not have its own blood supply. Instead, it relies on adjacent tissues and the synovial fluid to supply it with the nutrients it requires. Cartilage cannot regenerate or rebuild itself so damage to it is permanent.
Osteoarthritis is a leading cause of disability in the United States.
Symptoms and Diagnostic Path
Many people who have osteoarthritis sufficient to show up on x-ray have few if any symptoms. Researchers estimate that by age 60, more than half of Americans have radiologic evidence of osteoarthritis. However, fewer than 20 percent of Americans seek medical treatment for symptoms of osteoarthritis.
Stiffness and pain in the joints are the main symptoms of osteoarthritis. Discomfort is usually greatest in the morning when first getting out of bed and after physical activity.
The diagnostic path may include X-ray to assess the extend of damage within painful joints. But because the damage primarily affects cartilage, a soft tissue, the full extent of osteoarthritis is not likely to be apparent with X-ray. The doctor may request other diagnostic procedures to rule out conditions that have similar symptoms.
However, a detailed personal health history in combination with a comprehensive medical examination is generally sufficient for the doctor to make the diagnosis.
Treatment Options and Outlook
Treatment for osteoarthritis attempts to slow the degeneration by reducing inflammation. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) and injections of corticosteroid medications are very effective in accomplishing this goal. NSAIDs also relieve pain.
Other treatment includes easing the stress on the joints, daily physical exercise for weight loss and weight management, and measures such as moist heat to affected joints. Exercises can strengthen the muscles and other structures of the joints. Yoga is excellent for improving range of motion and flexibility.
Though there are no treatments that can cure osteoarthritis, a blend of medical therapies and lifestyle modifications can keep symptoms in check. Many people who have osteoarthritis are able to enjoy favorite activities with few if any restrictions when they follow appropriate measures to control future damage of the joints.
Significant damage to the joint may require joint replacement.
Risk Factors and Preventive Measures
The primary risk for osteoarthritis is increased age. Osteoarthritis is uncommon in people under age 50. Early diagnosis allows early treatment, which helps prevent further deterioration of the involved joint.
Because so many factors converge to establish osteoarthritis, there are no measures known to prevent it.
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