What is osteoarthritis? – The disease, diagnosis and treatment

Last modified: December 12, 2019

What is osteoarthritis? It is a chronic joint disease that falls under the umbrella term of rheumatic diseases. Rheumatic conditions includes about 200 different diseases which all affect the joints and connective tissue. Osteoarthritis is one of the most common diseases in this category. Many people have heard the word but have no idea what osteoarthritis is, what causes it and how it is treated.

An explanation of what osteoarthritis is

To explain what osteoarthritis is, we must take a closer look at the cartilage in the joints. Cartilage is what enables our bones to slide against each other when we bend our joints. Cartilage also distributes the weight that is put on the joint to ensure that no single part of the joint has more of a load than another. So, when cartilage breaks down it becomes much more difficult to use the joint normally. Common symptoms of this joint disease are stiff joints and pain in the joints when they are under strain. There may also be pain during rest. This reduces a person’s quality of life. However, treatment is available that can ease the symptoms.

Normally, there is a constant balance between the regeneration and degradation of cartilage tissue. This means that cartilage is regenerated at the same rate as it is degraded. Osteoarthritis upsets this balance, causing the cartilage to break down faster than it is built up again. This increases resistance in the joint. We are still not quite sure precisely how this imbalance occurs, but there are a few known risk factors.

Read more here about the risk factors.

A compelling metaphor might be to think of an ice rink that starts with completely smooth ice. During the day it is worn down as people skate on it. It becomes more difficult to glide over. In the same way, it becomes more difficult for the joint surfaces to slide against each other when the cartilage breaks down.

what is osteoarthritis

On the left, a joint with osteoarthritis. On the right, a joint with healthy cartilage. 

How osteoarthritis is diagnosed

Osteoarthritis is actually a combination of two things. The first is visible structural changes on the joint which can be seen on X-ray images. These used to be the sole basis for a diagnosis because an X-ray used to be the most common way to confirm the disease. However, it is important to remember that the disease should also be assessed on the basis of symptoms. It is not always the case that there are visible changes in a person with osteoarthritis. If someone has extremely painful joints, they should not be refused treatment simply because there are no visible changes in the joint. Here is more information about how the diagnosis is set.

How osteoarthritis is treated

It is important to remember that osteoarthritis is a chronic disease. This means that is life-long and we do not currently know how to cure the underlying disease. However, it is equally important to bear in mind that there is treatment available. Treatment is based on alleviating the symptoms as much as possible and making life easier for the person with the disease. The most effective way of doing this is with the help of rehabilitating training. The digital treatment Joint Academy is an option for people who want to treat their osteoarthritis at home.

Customized, regular training has several functions. Firstly, it strengthens the muscles around the affected joint. This means that the joints do not need to support so much strain and therefore they have more protection. Secondly, the cartilage is stimulated to repair itself. The body puts more energy into repairing something that is used, which is why training is better than rest in the long term. In addition, the feeling of wellbeing generally increases when we are physically active, something that can be necessary because osteoarthritis also affects our mental wellbeing.

There are also other treatments that you can use to supplement the training – everything from pain relievers to a prosthesis operation – but these should never be seen as holistic treatments. Regardless of the other treatment options you choose, training should always be a part of the mix.

Continue reading about the latest research on osteoarthritis.