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What Is Osteoarthritis?


Osteoarthritis, commonly abbreviated as OA, is a form of arthritis that occurs when the cartilage of the joints wears away. Wear and tear damage does happen to cartilage naturally over time, but certain factors can accelerate the process, leading to painful arthritis symptoms. OA can affect any joint, but the most commonly affected joints are those of the hips, knees, spine, and hands.

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, affecting more than 32.5 million Americans.¹ For many,  pain and joint instability limits their mobility and affects various areas of their lives. Such severe OA is recognized as a disability that is eligible for Social Security benefits.

What Is the Difference Between Arthritis and Osteoarthritis?

Arthritis is an umbrella term that covers a variety of arthritic conditions. Osteoarthritis is a type of arthritis, but not all arthritis is osteoarthritis. In other words, it’s perfectly reasonable for a person with OA to simply say “I have arthritis.”

Examples of other types of arthritis include:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis, which is caused by an auto-immune response
  • Juvenile arthritis, which occurs in children and teens
  • Gout, which is caused by the accumulation of urate crystals in the joints

Causes and Risk Factors for OA

At a physiological level, osteoarthritis occurs when the soft joint cartilage is insufficient to protect the bone and enable smooth movement. This cartilage can be damaged or worn in a variety of ways, and OA often results from a combination of factors.

Possible causes and risk factors for developing osteoarthritis include:

  • Age (older patients are at higher risk)
  • Sex (more common in women)
  • Obesity
  • Joint injury (trauma, sports, etc.)
  • Overuse or repetitive use
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Underlying metabolic disease
  • Bone or joint deformities

The more factors in play, the greater the potential is for developing osteoarthritis. For example, a 65-year-old woman with a history of sports injuries is at an elevated risk of OA.

Symptoms of Osteoarthritis

The symptoms of OA can make performing everyday tasks more difficult. Depending on the joints affected and the severity of the symptoms, sufferers may have trouble walking, experience a limited range of motion, or struggle with fine motor skills.

Common osteoarthritis symptoms include:

  • Pain and tenderness
  • Stiffness
  • Joint instability
  • Grating sensation during movement
  • Swelling
  • Bone spurs

Woman has neck pain

The type and intensity of OA symptoms vary depending on the extent of the cartilage damage. Osteoarthritis symptoms tend to worsen over time, particularly if left unaddressed. However, proper treatment can help slow the progression of osteoarthritis, reduce pain, and increase mobility.

Osteoarthritis Treatment

Fortunately for those diagnosed with osteoarthritis, there is a variety of treatment options and symptom management methods available. In some cases, a doctor might recommend surgery to directly address joint problems and prevent or slow further damage. Others may be able to ease symptoms non-surgically with things like medication or therapeutic exercise.

Non-Surgical Treatment

Different patients have different needs when it comes to treatment for osteoarthritis. If surgery is unnecessary or is not an option, patients can choose to manage their OA with non-surgical solutions like the following:

  • Pain-relieving medications

Patients can find temporary relief with over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen (Tylenol) and aspirin (Aleve). If the pain doesn’t improve, a doctor may recommend a prescription-strength NSAID like Celecoxib (Celebrex). In some cases, they may prescribe Cymbalta, an antidepressant that is also effective for chronic pain.

  • Physical and occupational therapy

male Physiotherapist examining injured arm of athlete female patient

Physical therapy sessions use targeted exercises to strengthen the muscles around the joints, improving stability and reducing the risk of further damage. Occupational therapy helps clients learn new ways to handle daily tasks that are easier on the joints.

  • Supplements

Over-the-counter products like glucosamine, chondroitin, and fish oil may be able to improve symptoms and help protect joint tissues. Supplements can be used in lieu of or concurrent with prescription medications, but they should only be taken with medical supervision.

  • Lifestyle changes

Certain lifestyle changes can address underlying causes of OA, improving symptoms and reducing the risk of continued damage. If excess weight and joint weakness are contributing to the issue, eating a healthier diet, losing weight, and getting more physical activity can relieve joint strain and improve their function.

  • Mobility aids

If osteoarthritis makes movement difficult or painful, specialized tools can make tasks easier and increase overall mobility. Commonly used mobility aids include canes, walkers, scooters, wheelchairs, chair lifts, utensil grips, and other items that enable comfortable movement.

  • Other Remedies

Numerous other at-home methods may help. Applying heat or cold can help reduce pain and inflammation. Topical creams like Voltaren, Aspercreme, or Icy Hot can also provide temporary pain relief. Slow, low-impact movement practices like yoga and tai chi keep the body engaged and may improve flexibility and fluidity of motion.

Surgical Treatment

If the damage is severe or the symptoms aren’t sufficiently improved by non-surgical methods, more intensive procedures may be recommended. The following are some of the most common surgical techniques used to treat severe osteoarthritis:

  • Injections

Before pursuing a full surgical procedure, patients may be able to find relief with targeted cortisone or lubricant injections. Cortisone is a corticosteroid that can reduce inflammation when injected into the joint area. Likewise, injection of a lubricant—typically hyaluronic acid, which is naturally present in joint fluid—can reduce stiffness and help the joint move smoothly.

  • Arthroplasty

Commonly referred to as “joint replacement,” arthroplasty is the full or partial surgical replacement of a joint with a prosthetic joint device. Arthroplasty is quite a common procedure, and it’s often used to replace shoulder, hip, and knee joints with good results.

  • Osteotomy

This is a truly unique surgical option, as it involves physically reshaping and realigning the bones. Pieces of bone are removed or added in certain areas to shift the load (body weight) away from the damaged area. By redistributing the burden in a more stable way, this method seeks to prevent further damage and reduce OA symptoms.

When to See a Doctor

Spotting osteoarthritis isn’t always easy. Things like pain and stiffness can be relatively vague and may be mistaken for something else. If you’re not sure what to do about your symptoms, here are a few signs that it’s time to ask a doctor about OA.

  • You have persistent joint pain that you can’t otherwise explain.
  • You feel a grinding/rubbing sensation when moving the joint(s).
  • Joint pain and stiffness are limiting normal movement in some way.
  • You find yourself unable to do daily tasks or participate in hobbies due to pain and poor joint mobility.
  • Home remedies and over-the-counter products aren’t helping.
  • You have one or more major risk factors for osteoarthritis.

Even if you feel that your symptoms are manageable, a doctor can help you manage it better and prevent any damage from worsening. If you’re experiencing joint pain, there’s no downside to asking questions and sharing your concerns.

Find an Arthritis Doctor at Crystal Run Healthcare

If you suspect that your symptoms might be a sign of osteoarthritis, a doctor at Crystal Run Healthcare can help you determine your next steps. As a trusted New York area medical provider, we successfully connect local patients with doctors across a variety of specialties, including rheumatology, orthopedics, physical therapy, and more.

Whether you need focused care for a specific condition like arthritis or you’re looking for a primary care physician for your family, our dedicated team will ensure you find the expert help you need. Contact us online or call (845) 703-6999 to learn more and set up an appointment with an experienced medical provider today.