Patient Articles

Osteoarthritis (OA)

What is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis (OA) is also called wear-and-tear arthritis. Sometimes doctors will use the term degenerative joints disease or DJD. It is the most common type of arthritis. Over 27 million people in the US have OA. Osteoarthritis affects many parts of the joint, including the bone, joint fluid, and cartilage.

Loss of cartilage is the most common joint problem in people with OA. In healthy joints, cartilage enables the bones in a joint move smoothly. In OA, cartilage is lost and the bones in the joint may grow spurs. This makes the joints be swollen, deformed, painful, and stiff. People with OA feel their joints move as if there was sandpaper inside.

What Causes Osteoarthritis?

There are several causes of OA. Osteoarthritis is more common with age or after joint injury. It also occurs more often when you have a family history of OA. In addition, having some other diseases can make you more vulnerable to getting OA. Excess weight can add stress to joints, and is a particular problem for people who have already begun to develop OA for other reasons

What Are the Symptoms?

People with OA usually have joint pain or stiffness. The pain often occurs during or after exercise. Pain can start any time you use the affected joints too much. Stiffness, in contrast, becomes worse when you do not use the joints enough. People also find that they cannot move the joint normally to all positions.

How Is Osteoarthritis Diagnosed?

Osteoarthritis is diagnosed by considering your medical history and checking your joints. Your doctor may also order X-rays or other imaging tests to see what is happening in your joints.

Can Osteoarthritis Be Prevented?

You can lower your risk of getting osteoarthritis. Keeping a healthy body weight and having strong muscles can lower the stress on your joints. If you do a lot of physical activity, protect your joints to avoid too much wear and tear. Use your joints, but not to abuse them!

What Is the Treatment?

The goal is to lower your pain and to make your joints move better. Sadly, there is no cure for OA. No medication can slow down the disease. But OA naturally develops very slowly. So, there are many things you can do to manage it well.

Medications

Medications for OA include

  Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) such as ibuprofen (eg, Advil® or Motrin®) or naproxen (eg, Aleve®)
  Pain medications such as acetaminophen (eg, Tylenol®)
  Muscle relaxants
  Steroid medications that are injected into your joints

You also can find these medications in creams or patches that you put on your skin. Many are available either by prescription or over the counter (OTC). Usually, you need to try several medications before finding the one that works best for you.

Physical or Occupational Therapy

Exercise can make your joints move better. It can also strengthen your muscles to protect your joints. Physical or occupational therapists can teach you the exercises that will help you most. They can also show you how to lower joint stress when you exercise or do heavy physical work. Stretching is particularly important. It is rare that patients suffer injuries because they do not have enough muscle power. It is much more often that they suffer injury, particularly to ligaments, muscles and tendons essential to moving our joints, when they have not stretched adequately.

Heat, Cold, and Assisted Devices

Applying heat can loosen a joint. A cold pack can help to numb painful joints and reduce swelling. Use both in moderation! Too much heat can cause burns. Too much cold can cause frost bite.

Splinting, taping, and devices like canes and walkers make life easier for many people with OA. Your doctor or therapist may also recommend that you use knee supports, ankle wraps, or thumb splints.

Hyaluronic Acid Therapy

Hyaluronic acid is used to treat people who have OA in their knee. It is injected directly into the joint. Hyaluronic acid therapy does not help everyone. But it can be very effective for relieving knee pain in some people. Hyaluronic acid is a natural occurring chemical, and it is usually very well tolerated. Its benefits can last for many months, or even years.

Surgery

Surgery may be needed for people who have not felt better with other treatments. Surgery can involve replacing cartilage in a joint or replacing the entire joint. The type of surgery used depends on the severity of OA and the joint that is affected by it.

Resources

Osteoarthritis Resources

Find out more about OA online at:
National Arthritis Foundation