Osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative arthritis degenerative joint disease, OA, or osteoarthrosis, is a form of arthritis caused by inflammation, breakdown, and the eventual loss of cartilage in the joints - the cartilage wears down over time.
Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis. According to the National Health Service, UK, approximately 8.5 million people are affected by the condition. The Arthritis Foundation, USA, says that about 27 million Americans are affected.
Osteoarthritis is a progressive disease; signs and symptoms gradually worsen over time. There is no cure. However, available therapies may help with pain and swelling (inflammation), as well as keeping the patient mobile and active. Experts say that patients who take steps to actively manage their osteoarthritis are more likely to gain control over their symptoms.
Any joint in the body may be affected. However, osteoarthritis is most likely to affects the patient's:
- Lower back
Osteoarthritis has three characteristics:
- Bony growths develop around the edge of joints.
- It damages cartilage - Cartilage is the part of the joint that cushions the ends of the bones and allows easy movement of joints.
- Synovitis - there is mild inflammation of the tissues around the joints.
Osteoarthritis is more common among females than males, especially after the age of 50 years. Most commonly, it develops in people aged over 40. Younger people may also be affected; usually after an injury or as a result of another joint condition.
Some people say that osteoarthritis is an inevitable part of ageing. This is untrue. There are people well into their nineties who have no clinical or functional signs of the disease.
Fast facts on osteoarthritis
Here are some key points about osteoarthritis.1
- Women are more affected by osteoarthritis than men after the age of 50.
- Symptoms typically start after 40 years of age, and progress slowly.
- In America, loss of joint function due to osteoarthritis is a major cause of work disability and reduced quality of life.
- In America, arthritis and related conditions, such as osteoarthritis cost the country almost $128 billion annually in medical care and indirect expenses, including lost income and productivity.
- The average direct cost of osteoarthritis in America is about $2,800 per patient annually.
- The total annual cost of osteoarthritis per person living with the condition is about $5,700.
Symptoms of osteoarthritis
A symptom is something the patient feels and reports, while a sign is something other people, such as the doctor detect. For example, pain may be a symptom while a rash may be a sign.
Osteoarthritis has as its main symptoms:
- Problems moving affected joints.
- Stiffness - more severe on waking up in the morning, and improves within 30 minutes when the individual starts moving about.
In some cases people with osteoarthritis may have no symptoms. Symptoms are usually only felt in either one joint, or a just a few at any one time. In many cases the symptoms come on slowly.
Other signs and symptoms may include:
- Affected joints are larger than usual
- After not moving the joint for a while pain and stiffness may worsen
- Joints are warm
- Loss of muscle bulk
- Tenderness in the affected joint
- The affected joints will have a limited range of movements
- The patient may experience a grating or crackling sound/sensation in the affected joint.
The knees, hips or hands are most commonly affected.
Osteoarthritis in the knees
Pain and stiffness in the knee could be a symptom of osteoarthritis
In most cases both knees are affected, unless the osteoarthritis was caused by an injury (or another condition). The patient will experience pain when walking, especially uphill or upstairs. Knees may lock into position, making it much harder to straighten the leg. The knee may make a soft, grating sound when used.
Osteoarthritis in the hips
Anything that requires movement of the hip joint causes problems, such as getting in/out of a car, or putting on one's shoes and socks.
Although pain in the hip is common, some patients with osteoarthritis in the hips experience pain in their knee (and not their hip). Less commonly, pain may be felt in the thighs, ankles and buttocks.
Typically, pain is felt whilst walking. But some people are in pain even when resting.
Osteoarthritis in the hands
Three areas may be affected:
- The base of the thumb
- The top joint of the fingers (closest to the nail)
- The middle joint of the fingers.
Fingers may be stiff, swollen and painful. Sometimes bumps may develop on the finger joints. In some cases, finger pain decreases and eventually goes away, while the swelling and bumps remain.
At the affected joints the fingers may bend slightly sideways. Fluid-filled lumps (cysts) may develop on the backs of the fingers; they are often painful.
A bump may develop where the base of the thumb joins the wrist. This may make writing, turning keys and opening jar-tops difficult and painful.
When to see a doctor
People who have joint stiffness and swelling that persist for more than a couple of weeks, they should see their doctor. Those already on osteoarthritis medications should contact a health care professional if they experience nausea, constipation, drowsiness, abdominal discomfort, or have black/tarry stools.
On the next page we look at the causes of osteoarthritis, the risk factors and how osteoarthritis is diagnosed. On the final page we discuss the treatments for osteoarthritis, some self-help strategies and the possible complications caused by osteoarthritis.