Among the different forms of arthritis, osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common by far and affects millions worldwide. It is known as a “wear and tear” condition, because it occurs when the cartilage in the joints is worn away over time. It affects men and women more-or-less equally, with prevalence increasing as people grow older.
As it progresses, OA can range from a mild annoyance to significant lifestyle impairment.
Causes and Symptoms of Osteoarthritis
A joint is wherever two bones connect. The ends of our bones are covered by a tough, elastic material called cartilage. Cartilage serves a few different purposes in the joint, such as absorbing shock from impacts and providing a smooth barrier for the bone to press against while moving. In cases of OA, cartilage begins to erode away over months and years and the bones end up pressing more closely together. If this erosion happens from use and age, it is referred to as “primary osteoarthritis.” “Secondary osteoarthritis” is when an external factor like trauma or disease is responsible for the loss of cartilage.
Initially, the main symptom of OA is stiffness in the joint—often for a short period after waking up. As the joint is used, pain and reduced mobility will be observed. The extent of the pain will vary depending on how advanced the condition is. In the beginning, the pain may only be triggered by certain high-intensity activities, but will eventually progress to everyday ones. The pain reaches its peak when the joint is in use and subsides when at rest, although it is known to linger in advanced cases as well.
As your body reacts to the irritation caused by the arthritis, the joint may become inflamed. This results in swelling and a warm or tender feeling when pressure is applied. Attempts to heal any damage the bone suffers also results in the joint becoming larger or “bonier” as hard lumps, called bone spurs, form around the area. In the most advanced stage, the cartilage wears away so much that the bones are actually pressing directly against each other. In addition to being painful, this can create a grinding or grating sensation when the joint is flexed.
Manage Osteoarthritis with These 10 Lifestyle Changes
Anti-inflammatory drugs, pain medication, and vitamins are the main options doctors have when prescribing treatments for osteoarthritis. Unfortunately, the closest thing OA has to a cure is surgical repair—an extreme step that carries its own risks. This does not mean you are helpless, however. There are several, often simple lifestyle adjustments you can make at home and elsewhere to help treat your condition:
1. Pacing: Avoid intense activity and space out repetitive tasks. This minimizes any injury or strain that the joint can suffer.
2. Exercising: It may seem counterintuitive to the “avoiding intense activity” part, but careful exercise that doesn’t stress the joint will be very beneficial. Exercise strengthens the surrounding muscles and helps offer support to the joints. Ideal activities are swimming, stationary biking, and light weightlifting.
3. Posture and positioning: How you move your joints is a big factor in managing OA. Positions like squatting and kneeling, for instance, place additional pressure on your knees and hips and should be avoided. If you need to lift or carry a heavy or large object, keep the item at waist height and try to avoid carrying things up or down the stairs.
4. Weight loss: The knees and hips are “load-bearing” joints that help support your weight, so being overweight or obese places intense strain on them. Having said that, losing a few pounds can help relieve some pressure or pain, even in people who have a healthy weight.
5. Heat and cold: Heat helps relieve stiffness and ease inflammation while cold mitigates muscle spasms, pain, and a certain degree of swelling. Treating yourself with a hot water bottle or ice pack when your OA flares up can offer vital relief.
6. Occupational therapy: An occupational therapist helps determine ways that you can perform the tasks of a job or other everyday activity in a way that minimizes the impact of or stress on your OA. This can include determining where a seat could be added for rest, looking at how doors could be changed if your grip decreases, and other adjustments.
7. Assistive devices: It can be hard to start using an assistive tool, but they can provide many benefits in the long run by both easing the strain on your body and letting you maintain quality of life. A cane, for instance, can take the weight off of an arthritic knee or hip and grabbing tools can assist arthritic fingers. Speak with your doctor or physical therapist about assistive devices to get a better idea of what your options are.
8. Massage therapy: OA can inflame the muscles surrounding the joint and heighten the pain and stiffness you experience. Massage therapy cannot help the joint or bone itself, but it is excellent for soothing irritated muscles. Since arthritic joints are more sensitive, not all massage therapists know the best way to treat clients with arthritis. Be sure to find one who has experience.
9. Acupuncture: No one really knows why, but there are studies showing acupuncture—the insertion of thin needles into key parts of the body—as having an effect on providing pain relief and improving function in arthritis patients.
10. Orthotics: These are a special type of assistive devices that are used to support and protect arthritic joints. Braces, for instance, can be placed on affected joints to help support them and relieve any pressure caused by the joint having to support weight. They can also be used to realign joints and bones that become distorted by arthritic wear. Orthotic soles and shoes that absorb more of the shock when walking are another example.
Sources for Today’s Article:
“Diseases and Conditions Osteoarthritis,” Mayo Clinic web site, October 9, 2014; http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/osteoarthritis/basics/symptoms/con-20014749.