Osteoarthritis: Our Aging Joints
A condition that we all eventually face in our lives is osteoarthritis or degenerative arthritis. Simply put, it is a natural part of aging. Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis and is more prevalent than rheumatoid arthritis or joint-related diseases. This common form of arthritis affects our joints, especially the ones that are weight-bearing such as the ones found in the back, hips or knees. Most people feel the effects of osteoarthritis in their hands and feet as well, primarily in the smaller joints of their fingers and toes. We place stress on these joints each and every day as we go about our business.
Degenerative arthritis is a part of aging. Men have been found to show signs of osteoarthritis as early as age 45. Women tend to show the same signs a little later in life, around age 55. Regardless of gender and age, however, athletes who participated in sports that place stress on the joints show signs of osteoarthritis that is not directly linked to age. An early injury to a joint can often be the cause of osteoarthritis in athletes.
What Causes Osteoarthritis?
The pain caused by osteoarthritis (OA) has to do with the cartilage in the affected joints. Cartilage, a protein substance, cushions the joints as the bones rub against each other. When cartilage is broken down and no longer providing the joint with a cushioned buffer, the person feels pain and has a hard time moving.
As we age, the water content of our joints increase while the cartilage degenerates and eventually disappears. Joint pain and swelling can then result from the overuse of the joints without cartilage to provide a cushion. Inflammation is the primary cause of pain in the affected joints. These joints often swell up and are very sore and stiff.
OA can also be prevalent as a a secondary condition for those who are obese or those who have had a repeated injury or stress, trauma, or surgery in that joint. Those who are overweight tend to show OA in their backs, hips, and knees as they tend to be the load-bearing joints in the body. Soccer players and weight-lifters often show signs of early OA in their knees.
For some, the fact that they were born with congenital abnormalities and have to live with abnormally formed joints causes them to suffer from OA at an earlier age. They are vulnerable to earlier mechanical wear on their joints, causing degeneration and loss of cartilage. These are diagnoses made at birth that follow people for the rest of their lives.
The Painful Symptoms
Unlike other forms of arthritis, those who suffer from OA don't have to worry about the effects on other organs. Degenerative arthritis only affects the joints and the pain and symptoms are localized to just the bones and the skeletal system.
The symptoms of OA vary from person to person. Some people feel great pain after sitting too long or being immobilized. They need to constantly stretch out and move the joint to keep the pain at a minimum. Some can be completely debilitated and are not able to move, whereas others feel relatively little pain throughout the day.
There are some consistencies, however, that have been shared by patients:
- The pain is usually worse later in the day.
- There is swelling in the joints and they feel warm at the end of the day.
- The affected joints tend to creak when moved.
- With complete loss of cartilage in a joint, inactivity is worse than activity.
Those suffering from OA can also see the symptoms in their fingers where the joints may look like bulges. This is because OA causes the formation of bony, hard enlargements of the finger joints. This can be caused by bone spurs that are formed due to the lack of cartilage. These bulges formed by the bone spurs in the fingers are known as Heberden's Nodes.
Although there aren't any cures for cartilage degeneration nor techniques for the rebuilding of cartilage, people who suffer from OA can implement some routines that might lessen the severity of the pain and symptoms. Obviously, lessening the use of the affected joint is the most logical place to start in reducing the symptoms. People also find that limiting their weight and impact on the joints also helps.
Medication that is taken orally or ointments that are applied topically might be able to relieve the symptoms of OA. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen can help reduce the pain for OA patients. Acetaminophen, like Tylenol, and aspirin can help with the pain. Applying heat and cold packs can also help reduce the swelling and inflammation in the joints.
In addition to the different pain medications, people have also found that some dietary supplements can also help. In particular, glucosamine and chondroitin can relieve the symptoms of pain and stiffness in the joints. Fish-oil supplements have also shown to help people combat stiffness in their joints and give them bigger ranges of motion.
An extremely natural way to combat OA symptoms would involve regular exercise utilizing the identified joint. This will help build the muscles around the joint. Strong muscles will help carry some of the load when you use the joint, allowing the bones, themselves, to take on a lighter load.
In the most severe cases, OA patients have turned to surgery. Surgical procedures for OA include:
- Arthroscopy ~ this surgery is particularly helpful to mend torn cartilage.
- Osteotomy ~ this is a procedure used to remove the bone which can help realign deformity in some patients.
- Arthrodesis ~ the procedure involves fusing the bones together. It is used in more severe cases of degenerated joints.
- Arthroplasty ~ joint replacement surgery. Total hip and total knee replacements are now commonly performed in community hospitals throughout the United States.
Some athletes and elderly are thriving after surgery and feel they were given a new lease on life.