Nearly 100 different types of arthritis have been reported, and the most common type is osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis (OA), also called as degenerative joint disease, is a common chronic condition of the joints typically seen in middle-aged to elderly people. It occurs when the cartilage between your joint bones breaks down leading to pain, stiffness, and swelling. OA can affect any joint, most commonly targeting the knees, hips, lower back, neck and the finger joints. This may be a result of mechanical stress or biochemical changes in the body. OA may also occur with another type of arthritis such as gout or rheumatoid arthritis.

Normally, the ends of your bones are covered with firm, slippery tissue, called cartilage. It provides a smooth and gliding surface for the joint movement. It acts as a cushion and shock absorber between the two bones. Osteoarthritis may cause breakdown of the cartilage, wearing of underlying bone, and development of spurs. Sometimes, your body is able to repair the damage and won’t cause pain and other symptoms. But in severe osteoarthritis, loss of cartilage occurs and causes pain and stiffness of the joint. Early diagnosis and treatment slows the disease progression and helps to manage the symptoms.

It is estimated that osteoarthritis is the most prevalent form of arthritis, affecting nearly 15 million adults every year in India.

Signs and symptoms

Pain is the main symptom, often described as a sharp ache or burning sensation in the associated muscles and tendons. It may get worse by prolonged activity and is relieved by rest.

You may also experience muscle stiffness especially in the morning which may last for less than 30 minutes or until the daily activities are started. In some patients, the crackling sound is felt when the affected joint is moved or touched. Other signs and symptoms of osteoarthritis include loss of flexibility, grating sensation, and bone spurs.

Consult the doctor immediately when you have joint pains or stiffness that doesn’t go away.

Causes and Risk factors

OA is mainly caused by “wear and tear” of the joints. It occurs when the cartilage gradually deteriorates. However, there are certain factors that are attributed to OA.

  • A gene called FAAH, previously linked to increased pain sensitivity is mostly found in people affected with OA.
  • Overweight puts pressure on hips and knees causing the cartilage to break down faster and ultimately leading to OA.
  • Injury to the joints such as fracture, surgery or ligament tear may also lead to OA.
  • Other joint disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, and hemochromatosis, may cause OA.
  • Women are at increased risk than men to develop OA; however, the reason is unknown.

Your doctor initially examines the affected joint thoroughly, and checks for tenderness, swelling, redness, and range of motion of the joint. If OA is suspected, then the doctor might suggest further tests like:

  • X-ray:- to check the presence of bone spurs around the joint
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI):– it gives detailed images of bone and soft tissues including cartilage
  • Blood test – this test helps to rule out other problems like rheumatoid arthritis
  • Joint fluid analysis – fluid is drawn from the affected area to determine if there is inflammation or to check if the pain is caused by gout or infection.

Osteoarthritis is the chronic, long-term disease and hence there is no cure. However, there are several osteoarthritis treatment options available to manage the symptoms.

  • Analgesics/pain killers, opioids, and corticosteroids are prescribed to relieve pain.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are used to reduce inflammation and related pain.
  • Hyaluronic acid injections are provided to manage the symptom of joint breakdown.
Physical therapy – It is a special exercise program that helps to strengthen your muscles around the joint, improves the range of motion and reduces the pain.
Occupational therapy, Tai chi, and yoga- are also the best treatment options to reduce stress and to improve joint movement. But these should be done only in the presence of an instructor because certain moves may cause pain in your joints.
Surgery – This is mainly suggested when you do not respond to other treatment options. Joint replacement surgery is the commonly preferred surgical technique in which the doctor removes the damaged joint surface and replaces it with plastic and metal parts.

You can easily manage the symptoms of OA just by adopting the following lifestyle changes.

  • Regular exercise not only improves your stamina but also strengthens the muscles around the joint and makes your joint more stable. Do not worry if you have joint pains after the exercise.
  • Manage your weight according to your body mass index (BMI) because overweight increases the pressure or stress on the joints.
  • Application of capsaicin (two to three times a day) may help you to manage pain, especially if you are not taking pain killers.
  • Use heat and cold compressors to reduce muscle spasms, pain, and muscle stiffness.
  • Use assistive devices to reduce the stress on your knees and hips.