Arthritis is a general term that means inflammation of the joints. Osteoarthritis (OA), also called degenerative joint disease, is the most common type of arthritis. It is associated with a progressive breakdown of cartilage in joints. This can cause discomfort in the affected joints ― perhaps an ache in knees or sore fingers.
Over time, the cartilage may wear away in some areas, a phenomenon greatly decreasing its ability to act as a shock absorber. If the condition worsens, the bones could rub against each other. Most people over age 60 have osteoarthritis to some degree, but its severity varies.
In most cases, osteoarthritis develops in the weight-bearing joints of the knees, hips or spine. It’s also common in the fingers, thumbs, neck, and big toes. Other joints are usually not affected unless an injury is involved.
The symptoms of osteoarthritis, which tend to gradually develop, include joint aching and soreness, especially with movement, pain after overuse, or joint swelling. The affected joints may also be stiff or creaky. Some people develop bony enlargements in the fingers, which may or may not cause pain.
One of the major risk factors for osteoarthritis is something none of us can control ― getting older.
Gender also plays a role. Over the age of 50, more women than men develop osteoarthritis. Because injured joints are more vulnerable to osteoarthritis, doing anything that damages the joints can raise the risk. This includes sports that have a high rate of injury and jobs that require repetitive motion. Obesity is another risk factor ― it has been linked specifically to osteoarthritis of the knees and hips.
Osteoarthritis is a degenerative condition that worsens over time. Joint pain and stiffness may become severe enough to make getting through the day difficult. There is no treatment to stop the erosion of cartilage in the joints, but there are ways to improve joint function and reduce pain. Osteoarthritis usually is treated by physical therapy with muscle strengthening exercises, oral medications, the use of supportive devices such as crutches or canes, and weight control.
In case of being overweight, one of the most effective ways to relieve pain in the knee or hip joints is to shed a few kilograms. Even modest weight loss has been shown to reduce symptoms of osteoarthritis by easing the strain on weight-bearing joints. Losing weight not only cuts down on pain, but may also reduce long-term joint damage.
People with osteoarthritis may avoid exercise out of concern that it will cause pain. But low-impact activities such as swimming, walking or bicycling can improve mobility and increase muscular strength. Training with light weights can help by strengthening the muscles that surround the joints.
When joint pain is severe, some people are no longer able to work. Surgery may be helpful to relieve pain and improve joint function for them when other treatment options have not been effective.
By Kim Hyung-jin M.D.
The author is an internist and rheumatologist at the International Health Services of Samsung Medical Center. ― Ed.