Facts about Osteoarthritis

How to spot osteoarthritis, and steps you can take to alleviate symptoms

Osteoarthritis, or degenerative joint disease, is a form of arthritis that causes pain and discomfort in the joints — most commonly in the hands, knees, hips and spine — by eroding the flexible layer of cartilage that normally cushions the joints and prevents bones from rubbing together as you move.

Fortunately, there are many ways to slow the progression and relieve osteoarthritis symptoms, and many osteoarthritis treatments involve neither surgery nor medication.

Causes of osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis most commonly develops as a result of normal wear and tear on joints, as part of the natural aging process. However, the actual mechanism that causes cartilage to degenerate is not well understood. Contributing factors may include:

  • Genetic defects in joint cartilage
  • Joints that didn't form properly
  • Excess body weight
  • Injuries
  • Constant repetitive motion

Osteoarthritis symptoms

Pain and stiffness in the joints are the most common osteoarthritis symptoms. You may find it difficult or painful to move upon arising or after prolonged periods of sitting or standing. Other osteoarthritis symptoms include a grinding feeling in joints when you move, and painful swelling and tenderness at the joints.

Diagnosis of osteoarthritis

In order to determine whether joint pain is caused by osteoarthritis, your doctor may physically manipulate your joints to determine whether your range of motion is impaired. She may also test your muscular strength. X-rays and other graphic testing, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), can help identify affected joints.

Your doctor may also order blood tests to rule out other possible causes, such as the more serious autoimmune condition rheumatoid arthritis. It is important to tell your doctor if you have a family history of osteoarthritis or other joint disorders.

Osteoarthritis treatments

Because osteoarthritis is most commonly caused and aggravated by wear and tear on the joints, the first line of osteoarthritis treatment is to take steps to relieve undue physical stresses caused by excess weight, lack of adequate rest and punishing activities.

There are many prescription and non-prescription drugs that can provide relief from osteoarthritis symptoms. Drugs commonly prescribed for the relief of osteoarthritis symptoms include acetaminophen, aspirin and corticosteroids. But drugs are not the only option. Medicinal pain relief, when it is prescribed, is usually intended to be used in addition to lifestyle and nonmedicinal treatments, not in place of them.

Heat and cold applied alone or in alternation often provide significant relief. Doctors and physical therapists can help you develop a program of exercise to strengthen the muscles around joints, and thereby relieve some of the pressure causing your osteoarthritis pain.

Medline Plus, a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), also suggests the following to help manage osteoarthritis symptoms:

  • Applying capsaicin, a topical cream derived from hot chili peppers
  • Eating a diet rich in vitamins and minerals — especially antioxidants
  • Taking supplements containing glucosamine and chondroitin — the building blocks of bone cartilage

According to the NIH, selenium -- found in garlic, whole grains and sunflower seeds -- and omega-3 fatty acids -- found in oily fish -- also contribute to cartilage health.

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