Osteoarthritis is also known as degenerative joint disease, and it is the most common type of arthritis. Osteoarthritis occurs when there is a breakdown of cartilage in the joints. It can affect any joint in the body, but it usually occurs in weight bearing joints such as the hips, knees, and spine. In addition, it also routinely affects fingers, thumbs, toes, and the neck.
Who is affected?
Osteoarthritis affects about 21 million Americans. Most people are at an increased risk for developing osteoarthritis as they get older, but it is important to realize that even people in their 20s and 30s sometimes develop this condition.
The symptoms of osteoarthritis include:
- Pain after overuse (or after lengthy periods of inactivity)
- Joint swelling
- Joint fluid accumulation
- Sore, aching joints (particularly with movement)
- Bony enlargements in middle and end joints of the fingers (these are sometimes, but not always, painful)
Causes of Osteoarthritis
One of the primary causes of osteoarthritis is the aging process. Over time, the water content of cartilage increases, but the protein composition of cartilage gradually begins to degenerate during this time. It is a natural condition of aging that nothing can be done to reverse.
In addition to aging, however, there are other factors that contribute to the development of osteoarthritis in some people.
- Being overweight
- Injury to the joints
- Too much stress on the joints
- Repetitive use of joints
Interestingly, women are much more likely to develop osteoarthritis than men, particularly after the age of 50. Men who are under the age of 50, however, are more likely than women in the same age group to develop this condition. Researchers have still not uncovered any significant clues that might shed some light on why this seems to be the case, however.
There are also some diseases that can put people at a higher risk for developing osteoarthritis. Acromegaly and hemachromatosis are two of these. Acromegaly is a metabolic disorder in which there is too much growth hormone, which causes the tissues to gradually enlarge. Hemachromatosis is a disorder that interferes with the body’s ability to break down iron, resulting in too much iron absorption from the intestines.
While osteoarthritis is not curable, there are some effective treatments that are routinely prescribed to patients with this condition.
- Prescription medications – such as anti-inflammatories, acetaminophen, Celebrex, and corticosteroid injections.
- Weight control
- Physical therapy
- Natural (alternative) therapies – such as massage therapy, acupuncture, aromatherapy, meditation, yoga, natural supplements.
Of the treatment options available, exercise and weight control are believed to be the most effective because of the long-term good health effects that are achieved through regular exercise and maintaining a healthy body weight.
Exercise, in particular, helps to improve joint movement and strengthens the muscles surrounding the joints. Swimming and walking are two of the most commonly recommended exercises for those who suffer from osteoarthritis because these activities are the least stressful on the joints.
By Marc Courtiol