Osteoarthritis symptoms, treatment, causes and getting help

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Osteoarthritis is a disease of the joints affecting almost everybody as they get older. Around 8 out of 10 people over the age of 50 are affected.

Medically reviewed by Dr Juliet McGrattan (MBChB) and based on a text by Dr Per Grinsted and Satya Pal Sharma

Concerned you might be suffering from osteoarthritis? A condition that causes the joints to become painful and stiff, osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis in the UK and affects most people as they get older. We look at osteoarthritis symptoms, causes, diagnosis and treatment tips:

What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a disease of the joints affecting almost everybody as they get older. Around 8 out of 10 people over the age of 50 are affected.

Commonly called the ‘wear and tear’ arthritis, this title conjures up images in your mind that you have worn out your joints by being active. However we now know that the changes in the joint are happening to keep you mobile and to maintain your joint movement and flexibility, so the name ‘wear and repair’ arthritis is much more fitting. Keeping active is an important part of treatment.

Osteoarthritis is a disease of the joints affecting almost everybody as they get older. Around 8 out of 10 people over the age of 50 are affected.

Cartilage is the firm coating on the end of bones which provides a smooth surface for bones to move against each other. In osteoarthritis, the cartilage becomes thin and uneven and then over time, may wear out completely. At the same time, the joint capsule becomes thicker and more synovial (lubricating) fluid is manufactured which makes the joint swell.

In addition to cartilage degeneration, bony spurs grow as the bone remodels itself, these can cause inflammation in the surrounding tissues.

Osteoarthritis can involve all joints of the body, but it’s most commonly found in the fingers, knees, hips and spine.

Osteoarthritis symptoms

Common osteoarthritis symptoms typically include the following:

  • Joint stiffness and pain. This improves with activity, but is often worse again after a period of rest.
  • Backacheif the spine is affected.
  • Reduced range of movement in affected joints.
  • Possible swelling of affected joints.
  • Possible grating of the joint on movement.
  • It is not usually associated with marked redness or heat of the affected joint.

Osteoarthritis risk factors

Osteoarthritis may be hereditary but no specific gene has been identified yet. The following factors are associated with an increased risk of developing the condition:

  • Obesity– being overweight for several years can put strain on the joints.
  • Stress on joints caused by one’s occupation.
  • Stress on joints caused by excessive activity or ageing.
  • Injury to the joint lining, caused by a previous fracture of the bone.

Osteoarthritis diagnosis

To diagnose osteoarthritis the following will usually occur:

  • Medical history and examination by a doctor.
  • An X-rayexamination will be able to reveal whether a patient has osteoarthritis but isn’t always necessary. Often there will be no correlation between the amount of pain and the severity of the arthritis as shown by the X-ray. It is the pain and the problems with movement that are decisive in making the diagnosis.
  • Laboratory blood testsmay be performed to rule out any inflammatory forms of arthritis.

Osteoarthritis lifestyle treatment

The following lifestyle tips can help manage the condition:

✔️ Exercise should be a core treatment for people with osteoarthritis, irrespective of age, co-morbidity, pain severity or disability. Exercise should include: local muscle strengthening and general aerobic fitness.

✔️ Weight loss if the person is overweight or obese.

✔️ Pain can be relieved by applying heat to stiff and painful joints for 20 minutes up to three times a day. Various deep-heat lotions, heating pads, infrared lamps, hot baths, etc can be used to help ease any discomfort. Swimming in a heated pool can be beneficial.

✔️ Cold packs may also be of help. Use for between 5 and 10 minutes at a time on an hourly basis up to six times a day.

Osteoarthritis medicine treatment

The following medicines may be prescribed to help manage the condition:

  • Painkillers

Mild to moderate disease can usually be managed successfully with simple over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin or ibuprofen.

However, recent work done in Australia, suggests that paracetamol is of little use, especially in treating back pain. The research recommends that exercise as instructed by your therapist or GP is likely to be more beneficial than paracetamol for back pain.

As a result, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has reviewed its guidelines on the management of low back pain and paracetamol on its own is no longer recommended. It does however remain in the recommendations for treating osteoarthritis generally. It’s advisable to try NSAID creams and gels before moving onto the tablet form.

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs

A GP may prescribe a different non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) if this is appropriate for you, or a stronger codeine-based painkiller (opioids).

  • Topical capsaicin

Topical capsaicin for knee or hand osteoarthritis.

  • Corticosteroid

An injection of corticosteroid into the affected joint may be considered when the pain is considered to be moderate or severe.

Net Doctor

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