As we age, time takes its toll on many of our body’s systems and organs. Our joints are no different. Osteoarthritis is a common issue that many people will deal with as they age.
What is Osteoarthritis?
Arthritis basically just means “inflammation of the joints”. Osteoarthritis (OA) is joint inflammation caused by some dysfunction or “wear and tear” in specific joints and bones. It usually results from cartilage breakdown in the joint and is more likely to affect weight-bearing joints. Hips, knees, ankles, the spine and even shoulders become more at risk as we age. It can also result from trauma to a joint.
Degeneration of the cartilage in these joints generally leads to osteoarthritis. Cartilage is a rubbery tissue, composed of collagen, that typically covers the end of bones. Its main function is to reduce friction in between bones in joints and to act as a cushion to decrease impact to the joint. OA can, over time, cause cartilage in the joints to become stiff and wear away, which can cause issues with tendons, ligaments, and ultimately lead to the bones rubbing against each other. This is what is meant when you hear someone talking about their “bone-on-bone” arthritis in their knee for example.
Some of the common causes of OA are heredity, obesity, injury, joint overuse, other diseases. Since OA is caused by general “wear and tear”, obesity can play a role in the development of OA, specifically in the joints of the knees, hips, and spine. Injuries or traumas to joints can predispose that joint to develop OA in the future. Some diseases, like gout or rheumatoid arthritis, can also lead to the development of OA.
What are the Symptoms of OA?
Since OA typically develops over time, it’s symptoms tend to progress gradually and can include:
- Soreness or aching in the affected joint(s)
- Pain with overuse
- Pain/stiffness after periods of rest or innactivity
- Bone spurs or calcification areas over bones in the joint(s)
- Swelling/inflammation of the joint(s)
Many people who have OA experience soreness and stiffness in the morning when they first wake up. This soreness tends to dissipate throughout the day and will generally return at the end of the day or after heavy use of the joints.
Managing Symptoms of OA
Despite the fact that OA is a degenerative disease, there are some ways that you can manage the symptoms and rearrange some aspects of your life to decrease the impact of OA on your daily routines.
These would include:
- Lifestyle Adaptations
- Assistive Devices
- Symptom Management
- Physical Activity
- Physical & Occupational Therapy
Making a few simple changes can go long way with decreasing the affects of OA on your daily routine. For example, rearranging kitchen cabinets so that heavier objects are located around waist level will decrease the amount of pressure caused by overhead reaching and lifting. Adding grab bars in your bathroom can help decrease the amount of stress placed on knees and hips when getting off the commode or out of the shower.
There are many assistive devices available that help decrease the affects of OA on daily tasks. For example, automatic jar openers or one handed jar openers greatly reduce the pressure placed on the joints of your hand while opening tight jars. Utensils with built up handles or adaptive foam grips can also decrease pain and soreness associated with gripping onto forks and spoons, which typically have smaller diameters. Reachers and long handled shoe horns can decrease the amount of overhead reaching that needs to be done, which can be beneficial for those with OA affecting their shoulders. There are many options for assistive devices that can make life easier and decrease pain associated with OA.
Even though OA is a degenerative disease that has no cure, there are many ways to manage symptoms and decrease overall soreness and pain.
Heat & Ice
Applying heat or ice to an affected joint can help decrease arthritic pain. The key is to know when to use each. For general stiffness and soreness from OA, try applying a moist heat pack for 15-20 minutes. For many with OA, heat offers pain relief and decreases stiffness. Heat increases blood flow and decreases stiffness in joints. If you are experiencing sharp pain, or an arthritic flare-up, try applying an ice pack to the affected joint for 15 minutes or so. Unlike heat, ice reduces circulation, decreases inflammation, and numbs down nerve endings, which can decrease the amount of pain you feel in the affected joint. Experiment with heat and ice for general soreness from OA and see which one works best for your body.
Topical Pain Relief & Analgesics
There are a variety of lotions and rubs on the market that are designed to decrease pain associated with arthritis. Some doctors will prescribe Voltaren Gel to some patients as a means for pain management, however there are options out there that do not require a prescription. These would include some menthol rubs like Biofreeze Gel or Icy Hot.
Medication & Dietary Supplements
In some instances, medication may be an appropriate treatment method to manage pain associated with osteoarthritis. Talk with your doctor about the use of anti inflammatory medications to minimize pain or even dietary supplements that may help with symptom management.
The importance of exercise cannot be understated. The main benefit is to keep the muscles around your joints strong, which can increase stability in your joints and help to relieve pain. Exercising can also help keep your joints flexible, increase your muscle strength, and increase your endurance to help you complete daily activities and tasks. For shoulder pain, check out our Core-4 Exercise Program.
Physical & Occupational Therapy
In some cases Physical & Occupational Therapy may be able to offer some assistance with managing your OA. Physical therapy can assist in providing appropriate exercises for your legs, knees, & hips. They may also recommend appropriate devices to assist with your mobility, like walkers and canes. Occupational Therapy can evaluate your function during daily activities (ADLs) like dressing and provide you with recommendations for joint protection techniques, exercises, and adaptive equipment (like button hooks).
Many states allow what is called “direct access” to these services, meaning that, you do not need a referral from a doctor to see a PT or OT. However some states require that a doctor submits a referral to a PT or OT before you can see one. In any case, it may be a good idea to discuss this possibility with your doctor. They may have a list of therapists who specialize in treating arthritis that they recommend.
We hope you have found the information in this article helpful in both understanding a little bit about osteoarthritis and how to manage it in a way that allows you to continue living the life you want to live. Remember, don’t let something like OA keep you from doing the things you love and that bring you fulfillment.
Informational Resources for Continued Reading: