What Is Osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis is a disease of the joints affecting almost everyone as they get older but younger people –even teenagers - may develop it. Most people are likely to experience some level of pain and some degree of mobility problems.Knee osteoarthritis and hip osteoarthritis are two of the most common forms.
Osteoarthritis cannot be cured, but an early diagnosis can help slow its progression and a lot can be done to ease the symptoms. As this booklet explains, there is a wide range of osteoarthritis treatments to try and there is a lot you can do to make day-to-day living easier.
What causes osteoarthritis?
Specific causes of osteoarthritis are hard to pin down. Several factors can increase the risk of developing it.
Age: People usually develop osteoarthritis from their late 40s through to old age and it is often undiagnosed. Although it is uncommon before the age of 40, young people can develop it. It is not known exactly why older people tend to develop it, but it is probably due to bodily changes which come with old age, such as the muscles becoming weaker, putting on weight and the body becoming less able to heal itself.
Gender: Osteoarthritis is more common and often more severe in women, especially in the knees and hands. It often starts after the menopause.
Obesity: The effects of obesity on osteoarthritis are well documented. Carrying extra weight puts pressure on weight-bearing joints, especially the hips, knees and spine. It also increases the chances of osteoarthritis worsening once it has developed.
Joint injury: A major injury or operation on a joint may lead to osteoarthritis at that site later in life. Normal activity and exercise are good for the joints and do not cause osteoarthritis. However, very hard, repetitive activity may injure joints. Exercising too soon after an injury has had time to heal properly may also lead to osteoarthritis in that joint later on. It is always best to check with your doctor, physiotherapist or nurse when it is safe to exercise after you have sustained an injury.
Heredity: One common form of osteoarthritis – nodal osteoarthritis – runs strongly in families. This particularly affects the hands of middle-aged women. In other common forms of osteoarthritis, heredity plays a small part compared with obesity, ageing and joint injury. There are some very rare forms of osteoarthritis that start at a young age and run in families and these are linked with single genes that affect collagen – an essential component of cartilage.
The standard explanation for osteoarthritis is that it is a result of wear and tear. Studies of people who have led very similar lives show some will have virtually perfect joints, while others have quite severe osteoarthritis. Therefore, it seems there must be an inbuilt susceptibility to, or protection against, osteoarthritis.
Other types of joint disease: Osteoarthritis is sometimes caused by injury and damage from a different kind of joint disease years before. For example, people with rheumatoid arthritis can develop osteoarthritis in the joints that were most affected by rheumatoid inflammation.
What are the symptoms of osteoarthritis?
The early signs of osteoarthritis are so mild that they are often easy to miss. The main symptoms are stiff and painful joints, with the pain tending to be worse while exercising the joint and at the end of the day.
Stiffness usually wears off after resting, but the joint may not move as freely or as far as normal and may ‘creak’ or ‘crack’ when moved. Muscle strengthening exercises can prevent the joint giving way.
Symptoms can vary and you may have bad patches of a few weeks or months followed by better periods.
You may find that it depends on how much physical activity you do. Joints may appear swollen. In more advanced cases, there may be constant pain and everyday tasks and movement may become difficult.
It is important you visit your GP and don’t ignore your symptoms, as early diagnosis will help prevent unnecessary damage.
In this booklet you will find:
- Introducing OA: About the condition
- Getting a diagnosis: The process of getting diagnosed
- Communicating with health professionals: Who you will see, What you can do to manage your arthritis, Treatment with drugs
- Looking after your joints: Ways of living with arthritis, Using exercise, diet and complementary therapies to look after your joints, Surgery
- Practicalities: Managing at home, in work and education, Access to transport and benefits
- Caring for yourself: Considering your emotions, relationships and self-management