Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis in the UK and affects up to 10% of men and 18% of women aged over 60 worldwide according to the World Health Organisation. It is a condition that causes the joints to become painful and stiff and the severity of symptoms can vary greatly from person to person.
Almost any joint can be affected but the most common problems are found in the joints that have been continually stressed throughout the years including the knees, hips, the small joints of the hand and lower spine region. The pain and stiffness in the joints can make carrying out everyday activities very difficult for people with the condition and it is one of the ten most disabling diseases in the developed world.
Paracetamol has traditionally been the main treatment for the condition but a major new study has found that the painkiller does little to ease the hip and knee pain associated with the condition, no matter how high the dose. It can also have side effects if taken in large doses over long periods.
Osteoarthritis; an overview
Osteoarthritis occurs when the surfaces within the joints become damaged so the joint doesn’t move as smoothly as it should. Cartilage is a firm rubbery material covering the ends of the bones and acts as a shock absorber to reduce friction.
Some of the cartilage covering the ends of the bones gradually roughens and becomes thin, and the bone underneath thickens. This makes the joints stiffer, less mobile and more painful. As the body tries to repair the damage, the tissues within the joint become more active than normal. If fluid accumulates in the joints they will swell.
Some people say that arthritis and osteoarthritis are an inevitable part of ageing. This is untrue. There are people well into their nineties who have no clinical or functional signs of the disease.
Symptoms of osteoarthritis
- Problems moving affected joints
- Stiffness which is most severe on waking and improves within 30 minutes of starting moving about
- Swollen and enlarged joints
- Joints feel warm to the touch
- Tenderness in the affected joints
- Limited range of movements in the affected joint
- Grating or crackling sound or sensation in the joint
When to see a doctor
If your joint pain or swelling lasts more than a couple of weeks, you should see a doctor. There is currently no definitive test that can diagnose osteoarthritis. The doctor will ask you about your symptoms and carry out a physical examination. They will not usually order blood tests or imaging scans unless they want to rule out other conditions. If you are already on osteoarthritis medications but experience nausea, constipation, drowsiness or abdominal discomfort, you should also see your doctor.
Risk factors for osteoarthritis
- Age – individuals under the age of 40 rarely develop osteoarthritis.
- Gender – women are more likely to develop the condition than men.
- Bone deformities – people born with defective joints or cartilage have a significantly higher risk of developing the disease.
- Obesity – the joints of obese people are under greater strain compared to people of normal weight.
- Injuries – injuries resulting from an accident or certain sports may raise the risk.
- Certain jobs – especially those that involve repetitive movements that target stress on particular joints.
- Certain existing conditions – these include gout, rheumatoid arthritis, septic arthritis, Paget’s disease.
- Genetics – it is estimated that 40% to 60% of cases may have a genetic link or a predisposition to developing osteoarthritis.
Treatments for osteoarthritis
- Medicines – As we mentioned earlier, a recent study has indicated that paracetamol does little to ease the pain and stiffness associated with the condition. The researchers found that diclofenac was the most effective treatment and this or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) should be considered for intermittent rather than long term use. Some NSAIDs are available as creams and can be applied directly to the affected joints.
- Non-surgical treatments – You may decide to try a type of pain relief called transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). This electronic device sends pulses through your skin to your nerve endings. It interferes with messages being sent to your brain and may help relieve your pain. Machines can be bought from your pharmacy.
- Surgery – If you have severe pain or it has a significant effect on your life, your doctor may suggest surgery. This could be keyhole surgery or an operation to replace part or the whole of your affected joint with an artificial one. As with all surgery, there are some risks associated with these procedures.
- Complementary therapies – Research is mixed as to the effectiveness of therapies and supplements such as fish oils, glucosamine, chondroitin and acupuncture but some people find relief for their symptoms.
- Other natural remedies – why not read our earlier article in which we explore the benefit of natural remedies for arthritis and their role in reducing the pain you experience.
Self help for osteoarthritis
- Exercise – Even though the idea of doing exercise while your joints are stiff and painful, exercise is a key part in that it keeps you active and mobile, builds up muscles resulting in stronger joints, helps control your body weight, relieves stress and improves your flexibility and stamina.
- Weight control – the less weight bearing down on your joints, the better your symptoms will be. This will be especially important in the lower limbs. A combination of a healthy eating programme, some exercise and at least 7 hours sleep each night should be worked towards wherever possible.
- Use a walking stick to ease any stress on your knee or hip joints.
- If you suffer from knee osteoarthritis, wearing a brace around your knee can be an excellent way to reduce swelling and pressure leading to greater mobility.
- Wear shoes with a soft, thick cushioned sole or use an insole. This will help to reduce any jarring.
- Use a heat pad or ice pack to help relieve pain in the affected area.
- Pace yourself by spreading out any chores that need doing rather than trying to do them all at once.
For more information, help and advice please follow the link to VersusArthritis.
If you would like to find out more about how your diet can help ease the pain of osteoarthritis in the knee, please click on the link.
If your doctor feels that the best course of action would be hip or knee replacement, you may like to consider the options, what the operation involves and the cost of the surgery should you decide to pay for private hip or knee surgery. The following articles may be of interest:
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