Osteoarthritis is a disease of the joints. The two bones of a joint are normally protected by smooth, cushioning material called cartilage. In osteoarthritis, cartilage breaks down, causing pain and stiffness in the joint. Osteoarthritis is one of the most common forms of arthritis.
Osteoarthritis is one of the most common forms of arthritis. Osteoarthritis is most likely to develop in people aged over 45 years, although it can occur in younger people. Many people will develop symptoms as they age.
Causes of osteoarthritis
A joint is a structure that allows movement at the meeting point of two bones. Cartilage is a firm cushion that covers the ends of the two bones, absorbing shock and enabling the bones to glide smoothly over each other.
The joint is wrapped inside a tough capsule filled with synovial fluid. This fluid lubricates the joint and keeps it moving smoothly. In osteoarthritis, the cartilage becomes brittle and breaks down. Some pieces of cartilage may even break away and float around inside the synovial fluid.
Deterioration of cartilage can lead to inflammation in the joint. Eventually, the cartilage breaks down so much that it no longer cushions the two bones.
Symptoms of osteoarthritis
The symptoms of osteoarthritis can vary from one person to the next. Some of the more common symptoms include:
- Joint pain
- Muscle weakness.
Joints affected by osteoarthritis
The joints in which osteoarthritis is most common are:
- Knees – sometimes due to an old injury
- Hips – older people are most at risk
- Hands – usually the end finger joints
- Spine – in the neck or lower back.
Risk factors for osteoarthritis
The cause of osteoarthritis is unclear, but some risk factors have been identified. These include:
- A family history of osteoarthritis
- A previous injury or overuse of the joint
- Being overweight.
Diagnosis of osteoarthritis
If you are experiencing joint pain, it is important to see your doctor for a diagnosis. Many different conditions can cause joint pain and they require different treatments.
Your doctor may request an x-ray of the painful joint(s) and will refer you to a specialist (rheumatologist or orthopaedic surgeon) if necessary.
There is no cure for osteoarthritis, but the condition can be managed using exercise, weight loss, braces and orthotics, and medications or surgery if necessary.
Managing osteoarthritis with exercise
Osteoarthritis can often be managed by keeping the joint mobile. Exercising an osteoarthritic joint is important to:
- Maximise the health of the cartilage
- Maintain joint movement
- Improve muscle strength.
Cartilage does not have a blood supply, so it relies on the synovial fluid moving in and out of the joint to nourish it and remove its wastes. Exercises that involve moving the joints through their range of movement will also help maintain flexibility that is otherwise lost as a result of the arthritis.
Pain associated with arthritis has a weakening effect on the surrounding muscles. However, by undertaking strengthening exercises, muscle weakness can be reversed. Strong muscles will support sore joints.
Talk to your doctor, physiotherapist or exercise physiologist about suitable exercises. A variety of exercise that promotes muscle strength, joint flexibility and support, and improved balance and coordination is encouraged. Warm water exercise and tai chi may be suitable exercise programs.
Other ways to manage arthritis
Other techniques that can help in the management of osteoarthritis include:
- Education – find out about your condition. Arthritis and Osteoporosis Victoria can provide you with information and self-management courses
- Weight management – controlling weight is important for those who are overweight and have osteoarthritis in weight-bearing joints. Your doctor or dietician may be able to advise you on safe weight loss strategies
- Medication – pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory medications can help, as advised by your doctor
- Relaxation techniques – for example, muscle relaxation, meditation or visualisation – can help manage pain and the difficult emotions, such as anxiety, which are sometimes experienced by people with arthritis
- Support – seek support from others, including family, friends, work colleagues and health professionals. A support or self-help group may be another option
- Surgery – to replace hip and knee joints in cases of advanced osteoarthritis
- Patella taping, knee braces and orthotics – may be useful in the management of knee osteoarthritis. Seek advice from a physiotherapist
- Equipment that promotes independence – many specially designed aids and types of equipment are available to assist people with painful joints. The design of this equipment, such as large-handled kitchen utensils, reduces the strain on the joints. For more information, speak to an occupational therapist.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- Arthritis Victoria Tel. (03) 8531 8000 or 1800 011 041
Things to remember
- Osteoarthritis is a breakdown of the cartilage inside a joint.
- People over 45 are more at risk, but younger people can be affected too.
- Exercise is one of the best ways to manage osteoarthritis
You might also be interested in:
- Arthritis and diet.
- Arthritis and exercise.
- Hip disorders.
- Knee replacement surgery.
- Rheumatoid arthritis.
Want to know more?
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Last reviewed: May 2012
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