During the Winter months many of you may notice an increase in general "aches and pains". Most of the time pain in a specific joint which has developed without any specific injury can be attributed to osteoarthritis. But what is osteoarthritis, how do we recognise the symptoms and what can be done to manage the condition?
Osteoarthritis (OA) is a condition which affects the joints in the body over time. Most people will experience the symptoms of OA in their lifetime. "Osteo" means bone and "arthritis" means joint swelling and pain (inflammation) The knee is the most common joint affected, followed by the hands, spine and hips.
How does OA develop?
All joints in the body contain shock absorbing pads on each bone surface called cartilage. These pads allow the bone ends to move against each other without the build up of friction.
They also help to distribute weight evenly across the joint, for example in the knee.
Inside the joint the cartilage is bathed in a fluid called synovium. This fluid helps to nourish the cartilage and keep it slippery. The tough outer coating of the joint, called the capsule keeps the fluid within the joint space.
When a joint develops OA the cartilage gradually roughens and becomes thin. The underlying bone reacts by becoming thicker, with the bone at the edge of the joint growing outwards to form bony spurs called osteophytes. The synovium also produces extra fluid which causes the joint to swell. The joint capsule and ligaments may also shrink, with the surrounding muscles becoming thin and wasted.
This can sometimes cause a knee joint to "give way" when any weight is placed on it. All these changes are due to the joint trying to repair itself, however in larger joints this is usually not enough and the joint continues to feel stiff and painful.
Can I tell if I have OA?
OA affects different people in different ways- as a result it is not very helpful to compare experiences between individuals. In general people with OA usually complain of an aching joint with stiffness, often in the mornings or after rest. Walking or movement normally eases the symptoms. You may also notice pain after strenuous activity, which settles with rest. Good days and bad days are not uncommon, with flare ups for no apparent reason.
There is currently no routine blood test for OA although they are sometimes used to rule out other types of arthritis.
X Rays are the most useful indicator. Often in the presence of OA they will reveal the space between the bones narrowing as the cartilage thins and the bone thickens. Please note that a poor X-Ray appearance does not necessary mean a lot of pain and disability.
How can OA be treated?
OA does not always get worse and is a normal part of the ageing process. Most people carry on with a normal life and do not become severely disabled. A number of approaches can help control symptoms:
- Regular appropriate exercise like swimming or walking can keep the joints mobile.
- Keeping an eye on your weight will reduce the load carried by the joints.
- Heat and rest is beneficial when the joints are in 'flare'
- The use of painkillers when required- speak to your local pharmacist/GP for further information.
At the McNaughton Physiogrange Clinic an effective exercise programme can be prescribed to help strengthen surrounding muscles and maintain joint flexibility. Local treatments such as massage and electrotherapy can also help soothe the symptoms of stiffness and pain.
Don't suffer from OA- Help is at hand
This article was written by the McNaughton Physiogrange Team and first appeared in the January 2009 edition of 702 Gazette