Osteoarthritis is also called degenerative joint disease and is a condition in which synovial joint, especially weight bearing joints, lose healthy cartilage. This condition is distinguished from other types of arthritis by being directly related to age and wear and tear of the joint structures as written by Ruth Werner in her book, “A Massage Therapist’s Guide to Pathology.”
It is often recognized by the affected joints that are stiff, painful, and occasional palpaby inflamed. Bony deformation may be easily visible or palpable. Osteoarthritis most often affects knees, hips, and distal joints of the fingers.
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
Osteoarthritis is a normal result of aging. It is also caused by ‘wear and tear’ on a joint.
- Cartilage is the firm, rubbery tissue that cushions your bones at the joints, and allows bones to glide over one another.
- If the cartilage breaks down and wears away, the bones rub together. This causes pain, swelling, and stiffness.
- Bony spurs or extra bone may form around the joint. The ligaments and muscles around the joint become weaker and stiffer.
Often, the cause of OA is unknown. It is mainly related to aging.
The symptoms of OA usually appear in middle age. Almost everyone has some symptoms by age 70. However, these symptoms may be minor.
Before age 55, OA occurs equally in men and women. After age 55, it is more common in women.
Other factors can also lead to OA.
- OA tends to run in families.
- Being overweight increases the risk of OA in the hip, knee, ankle, and foot joints because extra weight causes more wear and tear.
- Fractures or other joint injuries can lead to OA later in life. This includes injuries to the cartilage and ligaments in your joints.
- Jobs that involve kneeling or squatting for more than an hour a day put you at the highest risk. Jobs that involve lifting, climbing stairs, or walking also put you at risk.
- Playing sports that involve direct impact on the joint (such as football), twisting (such as basketball or soccer), or throwing also increase the risk of arthritis.
Medical conditions that can lead to OA include:
- Bleeding disorders that cause bleeding in the joint, such as hemophilia
- Disorders that block the blood supply near a joint and lead to avascular necrosis
- Other types of arthritis, such as chronic gout, pseudogout, or rheumatoid arthritis
Pain and stiffness in the joints are the most common symptoms. The pain is often worse after exercise and when you put weight or pressure on the joint.
If you have osteoarthritis, your joints probably become stiffer and harder to move over time. You may notice a rubbing, grating, or crackling sound when you move the joint.
The phrase “morning stiffness” refers to the pain and stiffness you may feel when you first wake up in the morning. Stiffness usually lasts for 30 minutes or less. It is improved by mild activity that “warms up” the joint.
During the day, the pain may get worse when you’re active and feel better when you are resting. After a while, the pain may be present when you are resting. It may even wake you up at night.
Some people might not have symptoms, even though x-rays show the changes of OA.
Signs and tests
A physical exam can show:
- Joint movement may cause a cracking (grating) sound, called crepitation
- Joint swelling (bones around the joints may feel larger than normal)
- Limited range of motion
- Tenderness when the joint is pressed
- Normal movement is often painful
No blood tests are helpful in diagnosing OA.
An x-ray of affected joints will show a loss of the joint space. In advanced cases, there will be a wearing down of the ends of the bone and bone spurs.
OA cannot be cured. It will most likely get worse over time. However, your OA symptoms can be controlled.
You can have surgery, but other treatments can improve your pain and make your life much better. Although these treatments cannot make the arthritis go away, they can often delay surgery.
Over-the-counter pain relievers, which you can buy without a prescription, can help with OA symptoms. Most doctors recommend acetaminophen (Tylenol) first, because it has fewer side effects than other drugs. If your pain continues, your doctor may recommend non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Types of NSAIDs include aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen.
Other medications or supplements that you may use include:
- Corticosteroids injected right into the joint to reduce swelling and pain
- Over-the-counter remedies such as glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate
- Capsaicin (Zostrix) skin cream to relieve pain
- Artificial joint fluid (Synvisc, Hyalgan) can be injected into the knee to relieve pain for 3 – 6 months
Staying active and getting exercise helps maintain joint and overall movement. Ask your health care provider to recommend an appropriate home exercise routine. Water exercises, such as swimming, are especially helpful.
Other lifestyle recommendations include:
- Applying heat and cold
- Eating a healthy, balanced diet
- Getting rest
- Losing weight if you are overweight
- Protecting the joints
As the pain from your OA becomes worse, keeping up with everyday activities may become more difficult or painful.
- Sometimes making changes around the home will take some stress off your joints, and relieve some of the pain.
- If your work is causing stress in certain joints, you may need to adjust your work area or change work tasks.
Physical Therapy can help improve muscle strength and the motion of stiff joints, as well as your sense of balance. Therapists have many techniques for treating OA. If therapy does not make you feel better after 6 – 8 weeks, then it likely will not work at all.
Massage Therapy may also help provide short-term pain relief. Massage is not recommended for any arthritis if it is acutely inflamed. Massage is recommended in the subacute state of arthritis, when bodywork can contribute to muscular relaxation and mobility of the affected joint. Make sure you work with an experienced massage therapist who understands how to work with sensitive joint areas.
Splints and braces can sometimes support weakened joints. Some prevent the joint from moving; others allow some movement. You should use a brace only when your doctor or therapist recommends one. Using a brace the wrong way can cause joint damage, stiffness, and pain.
Acupuncture is a treatment based on Chinese medicine. How it works is not entirely clear. Some studies have found that acupuncture may provide short-term pain relief for people with OA.
S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe, pronounced “Sammy”) is a man-made form of a natural byproduct of the amino acid methionine. It has been marketed as a remedy for arthritis, but scientific evidence to support these claims is lacking.
Severe cases of OA might need surgery to replace or repair damaged joints. Surgical options include:
- Arthroscopic surgery to trim torn and damaged cartilage
- Changing the alignment of a bone to relieve stress on the bone or joint (osteotomy)
- Surgical fusion of bones, usually in the spine (arthrodesis)
- Total or partial replacement of the damaged joint with an artificial joint (knee replacement, hip replacement, shoulder replacement, ankle replacement, elbow replacement)
Every person with OA is different. Pain and stiffness may prevent one person from performing simple daily activities, while others are able to maintain an active lifestyle that includes sports and other activities.Your movement may become very limited over time. Doing everyday activities, such as personal hygiene, household chores, or cooking may become a challenge. Treatment usually improves function.
- Reactions to drugs used for treatment
- Decreased ability to perform everyday activities, such as personal hygiene, household chores, or cooking
- Decreased ability to walk
Calling your health care provider
Call your health care provider if you have symptoms of OA that get worse.
Try not to overuse a painful joint at work or during activities.
The information in this article has been compiled and written by Janice Rudeen, a Certified Massage Therapy in Idaho. She is the owner of Lifestyle Massage Therapy with offices in Bonners Ferry and Naples, Idaho.