Osteoarthritis is a disease of the joint. When describing osteoarthritis to his patients, Chris Boggs, MD, family practitioner at Grand Strand Medical Center in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina says the easiest way to explain it is a loss of cushioning or gaskets around the joint.
This form of arthritis, which is the most common chronic joint condition, affects nearly 34 percent of American adults older than 65, a number that’s been climbing since 1990.
“Osteoarthritis is associated with some inflammation because the cushioning of the joints wear out and you have surfaces that were never intended to brush up against each other,” says Dr. Boggs. In fact, joint pain and stiffness are the two most common symptoms of osteoarthritis. Pain can range from fairly mild to debilitating.
While joint wear and tear normally occurs over time, there are some risk factors that can accelerate the breakdown of the joints.
Osteoarthritis risk factors
Your weight plays a large role in the health of your joints. Extra weight puts additional pressure on your hips and knees, and over time the joint cushioning may break down. Extra fat tissue may also increase the amount of inflammatory chemicals that can damage the joints. Joint injuries like fractures, tears or surgeries may break down joint cartilage, too.
Your risk of osteoarthritis increases with age, but genetic defects in joint cartilage, or any joint malformations may increase your risk of developing it earlier. It is more common for men to have osteoarthritis before the age of 45, but women are more likely to develop it after the age of 45.
And if you have one leg that is longer than the other, your osteoarthritis risk may be higher. “People that have an asymmetric skeletal system will have an irregular surface connection in their hips and knees, and that may accelerate the osteoarthritis,” says Boggs.
Other health conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, hemochromatosis, an iron disorder, and acromegaly, a hormonal growth condition, may also contribute to a person’s osteoarthritis risk.
Treatment for osteoarthritis
Dozens of osteoarthritis treatments have been introduced over the years, but pain relievers like acetaminophen and anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin and naproxen are the most common, says Boggs. But talk to your healthcare provider before taking acetaminophen; it may not work as well as an anti-inflammatory.
Other treatments include injectable anti-inflammatory medications, joint surgery and assistive devices such as canes, walkers, splints and shoe orthotics. Physical and occupational therapies can help with range of motion and increased flexibility.
Hot and cold therapies offer pain and stiffness relief for many, too. Heated paraffin treatment is an option that’s been around for years, says Boggs. “You heat paraffin wax until it’s liquid and then dip your hands in and let the heat treat the joint. The paraffin decreases pain and increases mobility.” A heating pad or a warm soak in a hot tub or bathtub can help relieve symptoms.
When it comes to cold therapies, putting an ice pack or a bag of frozen veggies on the aching joint can help may reduce the pain and inflammation. And submerging your joint in an ice bath may help, too.
Three types of exercises that help with osteoarthritis pain
Walking and strength training when you have osteoarthritis can help you manage your weight and manage the pain. But before you start working out, talk with your healthcare provider to determine the exercise regimen that’s right for you.
Range of motion exercises like leg lifts and leg rotations are good for arthritis. These particular exercises encourage flexibility and minimize stiffness. However, the best exercise for you depends on where your arthritis is located, says Boggs.
Strength training exercises help build muscles around the joints that are affected, and that can reduce the joint pain, too. Aerobic exercises like swimming and walking help keep your energy levels high and may help you lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.
In addition to regular exercise, stretching can also improve flexibility as well as ease joint pain and stiffness. Want to get started? Try stretching workouts like yoga or Tai Chi.
Ignoring symptoms can lead to prolonged pain
If you let your osteoarthritis symptoms linger without treatment, the pain may get worse and it may start interfering with regular mobility.
“The joint is already a worn out joint that is starting to have dysfunction. Ignoring it leads to prolonged pain that can start interfering with other aspects or spheres of life,” says Boggs. If you feel like you can’t exercise, attend social events or have difficulty with chores like cleaning, talk to your doctor.
Osteoarthritis is nothing to fear
Even though osteoarthritis symptoms may be painful, the condition isn’t anything to fear, says Boggs. “It’s not going to take your life, it’s better to be upfront with it and address it in a realistic fashion.” Talking to your healthcare provider about the treatments that will help you manage the pain and stiffness is the most important thing you can do.
“Even if we do replace the joint, you probably won’t be pain-free, but we’re going to help keep the pain to a level that’s more manageable and doesn’t interfere with your quality of life or daily living,” says Boggs.