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Osteoarthritis | What you need to know

This is the second in a series of blogs which aims to tell you all the key things you need to know about arthritis. As discussed in our previous blog ‘I think it’s arthritis’, there are several different types of arthritis. This blog will focus on osteoarthritis; specifically what, why, and how it is diagnosed. You can fast forward to treatment options for osteoarthritis here.

What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common type of arthritis. Think of it as the internal equivalent of grey hair and wrinkles. The terms ‘wear and tear’, ‘age related changes’, and ‘degenerative changes’ tend to be used interchangeably and all describe OA.

Arthritis is a term used to describe pain, swelling and stiffness in a joint. OA can affect any of the moveable joints in our body, but it is more common in some joints than others. It most frequently affects the spine, hips, knees and small joints of the hands. Spondylosis (not to be confused with scoliosis!) is the term we give specifically to OA affecting the spine.

What’s happening inside the joint?

In an arthritic joint, the cartilage covering the ends of the bones starts to deteriorate. This leads to the following changes within the joint that can result in pain and stiffness.

Knee osteoarthritis- What happens inside the joint
  • Extra bits of bone called osteophytes form at the edge of the joint
  • The lining of the joint, called the synovium, becomes thick and produces extra fluid causing the joint to swell
  • The ligaments that support the joint stretch and the surrounding muscles weaken which can make the joint feel unstable

Image above: OA knee from AAOS

What causes OA?

To our knowledge there is no specific cause for OA, however there are several risk factors which increase the likelihood of someone developing OA. These include:

  • Previous injury/surgery to a joint
  • Being overweight (particularly regarding hips and knees)
  • Pre-existing joint disease e.g. rheumatoid arthirits or gout
  • Joint malalignment/abnormal loading of joints
  • Age (prevalence increases with age)
  • Gender (OA is more common in females)
  • Genetics
  • Diet (a diet low in vitamins C, D, and K has been potentially linked)
  • Other health conditions such as diabetes

Symptoms of OA

The main symptoms of OA include:

  • Joint pain
  • Joint stiffness– particularly first thing in the morning and after rest

You may also notice:

  • Swelling– this can be hard due to extra bone growth (e.g. around the small finger joints), or soft and squidgy due to irritation of the lining of the joint and extra fluid within the joint
  • Crepitus– this is the term we use for the grating, creaking, cracking noises our joints sometimes make
  • Muscle wasting/weakness in the surrounding muscles

How is it diagnosed?

Often, a physiotherapist will be able to diagnose arthritis following a detailed history and thorough examination of a joint. An x-ray is sometimes suggested to either confirm the diagnosis, or to assess the extent of the arthritis. If you think you may need an x-ray, you may find our ‘do I need an scan‘ article helpful.

Is it inevitable?

With people frequently living into our 70s and beyond It is almost inevitable that each of us will experience symptoms of osteoarthritis somewhere in the body at some point. By the age of 75, evidence of OA on x-ray is evident in 80% of people. Remember, it’s the internal equivalent of grey hair and wrinkles!

What is not inevitable is that it will deteriorate to an unmanageable state. For the majority of people, the symptoms of arthritis comes in waves. There can be times when the joint is quite irritable, and times when it’s ‘not too bad’. Even after diagnosis, there is plenty that can be done to help the condition.

What can be done about it?

It is a common misconception that OA is inevitable with age and that nothing can be done about it. The good news is that that there is plenty that can be done about it. We will discuss this in detail in our next blog ‘treatment for osteoarthritis‘.

If you think you may have arthritis, get an accurate diagnosis and personalised information regarding the treatment options that are appropriate for you by booking an appointment with one of our experienced team members. You can book via this link, or give us a call on 0114 267 8181.