Osteoarthritis is the most common joint disease in the world. It currently affects around one in four people over the age of 45 in the US. As a result of this disease, the affected joint becomes stiff and painful, mainly during any kind of exertion.
General facts about osteoarthritis
Osteoarthritis is one of the world’s most common diseases. It is also one of the diseases that has the greatest disease burden, both for the private individual and society in general. Despite the fact that it is so widespread, our knowledge about everything from diagnosis to treatment is limited. This applies not just to the general public but also to those within the healthcare field. Therefore, it is important to find qualitative information that is up-to-date based on the latest research.
Here at osteoarthritis.org, all of the content is based on extensive research and the guidelines available for diagnosis and treatment of the disease. All information is in-line with the recommendations from international organizations, such as OARSI (Osteoarthritis Research Society International).
Osteoarthritis is treated in different stages. You can imagine a pyramid, where all parts are built on top of each other. Not everyone needs to climb to the top of the pyramid. The foundational treatment is customized exercises (preferably with guidance from a licensed physical therapist) in combination with education on how to best manage the disease. This should be offered to everyone suffering from the disease.
In the cases where exercise and education do not provide sufficient relief – or if the patient has so much pain that they cannot perform the exercises – painkilling drugs can be used. Simple, anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving medications are primarily used. Opioids are not recommended. If more intensive and consistent pain relief is needed, cortisone injections can be used in certain cases. Regardless of which form of pain relief is neccessary, it should only be used as needed and as prescribed by a doctor. Exercise is still the basis for treatment.
The last stage, which is only considered for a minority of those affected by the disease, is surgery. If the patient has hip or knee osteoarthritis, prosthetic surgery is an option. If other joints are affected, arthrodesis could be an option.
Different joints are affected in different ways
Osteoarthritis primarily affects articular cartilage. Articular cartilage exists in all joints in the body and functions as a sliding surface. This makes it easy for the different parts of the joint to slide against each other without any resistance. At the same time, the cartilage is designed to distribute the load on the joint evenly.
All tissues in the body are constantly subject to a process of creation and deterioration. Osteoarthritis upsets this balance, so that the tissue in the articular cartilage breaks down faster than it is built up again.
Since cartilage is found in all of our joints, any joint can be affected by osteoarthritis. The most common forms are hip and knee osteoarthritis, but you can also develop osteoarthritis in the fingers, the spinal column, and the jaw, to give a few examples. The primary symptoms are the same regardless which joint is affected: joint pain and stiffness. Howeve, the course of the disease and the treatment for it can differ depending on which joint is affected.
Other causes of joint pain
Even if osteoarthritis is a relatively common disease, there are of course other reasons for joint pain. Another diagnosis that can cause similar symptoms is rheumatoid arthritis, often shortened to RA. There are also different types of injuries that can cause knee pain, such as ligament or meniscus injuries. Regardless of when and how the pain in the joints develops, it is a good idea to see a doctor and get a diagnosis. Without the right diagnosis, you cannot start the right treatment.
The function of the joints and skeleton
Our joints and skeleton, along with our muscles, are what makes it possible for us to move. The function of the skeleton is to keep us upright, but also to protect our organs. The joints connect the different parts of the skeleton so that they can slide against each other. Both the joints and skeleton are incredibly important in everything we do: walking, sitting, standing, or running.
When a person’s skeleton or joints are injured, everyday life can be affected to a very significant degree. However, much of the pain can be prevented. For this reason, it is a good idea to develop an understanding of how to take care of your skeleton and your joints.
A healthy lifestyle with osteoarthritis
Most of us recognize that our lifestyle plays a large role in the development of different diseases, even if we do not exactly know how. For example, we know that it is good to eat a varied diet, to exercise every day, and to sleep well. When it comes to osteoarthritis specifically, exercise plays a particularly large role. Both specific, customized exercises and general physical activity are good for pain relief.
However, other lifestyle factors can also play a role. Diet can have a certain impact, primarily when it comes to weight loss. Since osteoarthritis is related to how much of a load is placed on the joint, it may be relevant for the patient to lose weight. Lower body weight and/or stronger muscles means less load on the joints.