Arthritis means "inflammation of the joint". It is a general term that includes more than 100 conditions that affect an estimated 40 million Americans.
Osteoarthritis is by far the most common type of arthritis especially among older people. An estimated 16 million individuals in the US have the disease. Osteoarthritis is also referred to as "age-related" arthritis, degenerative joint disease or "wear and tear" arthritis. The chance of developing osteoarthritis increases with age, and most people older than 65 years of age have it to some degree. It is associated with a breakdown of cartilage in joints and most commonly occurs in the weight-bearing joints of the hips, knees and feet. It also occurs frequently in the spine and the fingers.
Cartilage is the smooth, rubbery tissue that covers the ends of the bones in a joint. Healthy cartilage allows bones to glide smoothly over one another and acts as a "shock absorber" by absorbing the energy of physical movement. In osteoarthritis, the cartilage in the joint becomes stiff and loses its elasticity. Over time the cartilage may break down and wear away, decreasing its ability to act as a shock absorber. If the condition worsens, the bones under the cartilage can rub together causing pain, swelling and loss of motion. Also, bony outgrowths called spurs or osteophytes may form on the edges of the joint.
What are the symptoms of osteoarthritis?
- Pain - This is usually the earliest symptom and frequently occurs with movement.
- Stiffness - It is typical to experience stiffness in the morning or when trying to stand.
- Bony enlargement in the finger joints causes by knobs or "nodes". These may or may not be painful.
- Decreased range of motion
Osteoarthritis is not associated with fever, weight loss or a general feeling of sickness.
What causes osteoarthritis?
The exact cause of osteoarthritis is uncertain, but there are several factors that increase the risk of developing the disease.
- Age 45 years or older
- Hereditary conditions which produce joint abnormalities or defective cartilage
- Injuries can contribute to the development of osteoarthritis.
How is osteoarthritis diagnosed?
The diagnosis of osteoarthritis is made by a doctor based on the description of symptoms, the location and pattern of pain, and other findings on physical exam. The doctor may order X-rays to confirm the diagnosis and to evaluate the severity of joint damage or blood tests to help rule out more aggressive types of inflammatory arthritis.
How is osteoarthritis treated?
The goal of treatment is to decrease joint pain and stiffness, increase range of motion and improve the ability to perform daily activities. Treatment is determined on a case-by-case basis and depends on several factors including the severity of the condition as well as the person's age, activity level and medical history.
The NSAIDs (Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen and aspirin are used to reduce pain and inflammation. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is used to reduce pain, but does not reduce inflammation. These medications only help to manage the symptoms of osteoarthritis. They do not stop or slow the joint damage caused by this disease.
Heat and Cold Treatments
Hot and cold packs may be used to provide temporary relief from pain and stiffness.
Stretching and exercise is important to maintain muscle strength and range of motion. Low impact exercises such as swimming or walking are preferable to running or other activities that put more stress on the joints and cause pain.
It is important to try to maintain a normal body weight as excess weight increases the load on the joints.
Surgery is a last resort after other treatments have failed. Surgery involves replacement of the damaged joint with an artificial one. Replacement of the joint will reduce pain and allows the patient a greater activity level.
What about natural treatments for osteoarthritis?
Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfates are substances that are found naturally in the body and are used to
build and repair joint tissue. When taken in supplement form, these substances have shown an ability to not only improve the symptoms of osteoarthritis but to actually halt or reverse the progression of the disease. Several well-controlled studies have confirmed the effectiveness of glucosamine sulfate and/or chondroitin sulfate in the treatment of osteoarthritis.
Other natural substances that are used for osteoarthritis include MSM, SAM-e, flax seed oil and fish oil. Antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, grape seed extract and pycnogenol are utilized to prevent joint damage from free radicals.