Osteoarthritis is a potentially debilitating disorder in which the gradual loss of joint cartilage causes pain, stiffness, reduced joint motion, loss of function and disability. Disability results most often when the disease affects the spine and the weight-bearing joints: the knees and hips.
Osteoarthritis affects many people to some degree by age 70, and everyone is susceptible to it. In fact, by age 65, more than half the population has X-ray evidence of osteoarthritis in at least one joint.
Osteoarthritis, also called degenerative arthritis, is one of two main categories of diseases that affect the joints, muscles and tissues. The other main category is inflammatory arthritis; rheumatoid arthritis falls in this category. Altogether, there are more than 100 arthritic diseases.
Although osteoarthritis is degenerative, it isn't an inevitable consequence of getting older. You can prevent the disease, or keep it from progressing if you experience signs of it.
See your doctor
One of the most important things you should do if you show symptoms of osteoarthritis - recurring pain, aching, stiffness, or swelling in or around a joint - is to see your doctor as soon as possible. Osteoarthritis usually comes on slowly. Early in the disease, joints may ache after physical work or exercise. Any joint may be affected, but osteoarthritis occurs most often in the hands, hips, knees, and spine.
Getting diagnosed and getting treated early are vital to preventing joint damage and arthritis pain from affecting your quality of life.
Specific treatment for osteoarthritis depends on which joint is affected. In general, though, treatment involves four areas: medication to control pain; rest and exercise; weight loss if you are overweight (a body mass index of 25 to 29) or obese (a BMI of 30 or greater); and following a healthy lifestyle.
Exercise is one of the best treatments for osteoarthritis because it decreases pain, boosts flexibility, and leads to better physical fitness. Exercise also helps with mood and with maintaining a healthy weight. Your doctor or a physical therapist can help you decide what kind of exercise is best for you, depending on the joints involved. Look for exercises that build strength, particularly in the back and neck, give you an aerobic workout, and increase range of motion and agility/flexibility.
Besides getting regular exercise, a person with osteoarthritis also needs to schedule periods of rest. It's important to heed joint pain, to know when to stop or slow down. Relaxation techniques, stress reduction, and biofeedback also can help you rest. Your doctor or occupational therapist may recommend a splint, cane, or brace to take the pressure off a joint.
Relieving pain without drugs
Warm towels, hot packs, or a warm bath or shower puts moist heat on the aching joint, relieving pain and stiffness. Your healthcare provider may recommend cold packs to ease pain in some cases; check to see whether cold or heat is better for your condition. A heated pool or whirlpool also can relieve pain. Insoles or cushioned shoes help with osteoarthritis in the knee.
Acupuncture appears to relieve osteoarthritis pain for some people, although there is little scientific evidence to prove it works.
Capsaicin (Zostrix®), an ointment made from hot chili peppers, may relieve mild pain from osteoarthritis in joints that are close to the skin's surface. A small amount is rubbed on the skin over a painful joint. It causes a burning sensation. It must be applied several times a day and will take several weeks to relieve pain. It is available without prescription.
Achieving a healthy weight
Carrying extra weight puts more stress on your joints. If you are overweight or obese, talk to your health care provider or dietitian to get help to lose weight. Regular exercise will also help with weight control.
Although there is no cure for osteoarthritis, medications can provide pain relief and increase joint function. These medications come in an oral form or as a cream to rub onto the affected joint. Steroid injections can offer temporary relief. Talk to your doctor about what medications may be best for you.