Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common joint disease and is thought to affect at least 8 million people in the UK, of which at least a quarter seek help from their doctor. The hip, knee, spine, hands and big toes, are the areas that are most commonly affected.
It is not known precisely why Osteoarthritis occurs in joints but there are some factors which directly increase the risks of getting OA.
Age – OA usually starts in individuals anywhere from in their late 40s upwards. Probably due to factors that unfortunately accompany growing older!
Sex – the women get the short straw here with OA being more common and often more severe in women than men.
Obesity – Being overweight is a major contributor to bringing on OA and also worsening the condition if it is already present. The knee joint is frequently the joint which suffers most if someone is overweight.
Joint Damage – A joint is more likely to develop OA if it has suffered from disease, injury or surgery in the past, hence, OA is often known as the “wear and tear” arthritis.
What happens inside the joint?
Cartilage is probably the most important structure of the joint that ensures easy, pain free movement. In a healthy joint the ends of the bones that meet together are covered in this tough, gristle which gives a surface enabling it to glide and move easily. The joint is “oiled” with a lubricant called synovial fluid, which is made within the joint. This nourishes the cartilage keeping it in good condition and also helps to ensure easy movement. Healthy cartilage has great shock absorbing properties too, which helps to deal with some of the forces that we put through our joints during everyday activities.
If the cartilage becomes pitted, roughened and brittle, as it does in OA, it becomes less able to cope with the forces put through the joint. The cartilage can become totally worn away in places leaving the joint moving with bone on bone. This can create not only deformities, as extra bone is laid down around the joint whilst the body tries to heal the problem, but pain due to the bone rubbing on bone.
Signs and Symptoms of OA
With Osteoarthritis the major problems experienced by individuals are:
- Pain – this is often worsened with weight bearing, or after increased activity. In some people the pain can even be exacerbated by the weather! I remember treating one lady with very bad osteoarthritic knees who was able to predict the rain far more successfully than the local MET office! It is all to do with the drop in barometric pressure which some people find really irritates their condition.
- Stiffness – This is often much worse first thing in the morning or after a period of rest, when the joint becomes uncomfortable and difficult to get moving.
- Swelling – the joint may become swollen especially after increased activity or overdoing it, as the joint produces more joint fluid to try to lubricate and heal the joint.
- Muscle weakness – Muscle groups and ligaments become weaker around the affected joint in response to being used differently and less frequently. The weak muscles are then only able to manage smaller loads and even more weight goes through the painful joint.
- Deformity – This can occur for two reasons i) Because the damaged bone tries to heal itself, extra bone may be laid down around the edges of the joints making them appear misshapen or knobbly , ii) As the cartilage wears away, the joint may be forced to adopt a different position. Like in the knee joint, if the inner half of the joint becomes worn away, the knee joint is then at an angle giving the person a bow legged appearance.
- Adopting bad habits – due to pain or deformity your body will try to manage as comfortably as possible, by working around the pain. Limping may eradicate some of the knee pain but the stresses being pushed onto other areas are untold!
How you can help yourself to reduce the pain of arthritis
There are a number of simple things that you can do yourself to reduce the pain and symptoms of arthritis:
- Loose weight as any excess baggage means extra weight for the joints to have to cope with.
- Improve the amount and quality of movement at the affected and surrounding joints with appropriate exercise and stretches. Hydrotherapy is an excellent way of working the joints and muscles with the joints being supported by the water and having less body weight to contend with.
- Strengthening the muscles around the joints will take some of the work off the joint, and give extra support.
- Pace yourself during activities and exercises to avoid making the joint sore and swollen and ensure you take regular rests.
Treatment of Osteoarthritis
There are many ways to help with the symptoms of arthritis, which may include physiotherapy, the use of walking aids or supports, medication, injections into the joint, and surgery.
Early intervention by a physiotherapist can be of enormous benefit if you are having problems with pain or stiffness at any joint. By assessing your problem, and analyzing your movement, you can be shown and given the appropriate advice, exercise and treatment for your condition. This can help you improve your quality of life and delay or even prevent you from needing intervention by doctors or surgeons in the future.