Do you have sore joints? Are you concerned that you might have osteoarthritis? If so, you’re not alone. Osteoarthritis is a common chronic pain condition which affects over 8 million people in the U.K. Osteoarthritis can be difficult and painful, but with gentle exercise, a healthy diet and a range of over the counter medications and creams available it can be managed efficiently. Read on to find out more about the key signs of osteoarthritis.
What is osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. It is estimated that 8.5 million people live with this condition in the U.K. Osteoarthritis primarily affects older people, with at least 50% of those aged 65 and above presenting with symptoms of arthritis, but it can also affect younger people - especially if you have suffered an injury to your joints over the years.
Osteoarthritis can cause joints to become painful, stiff and swollen. Osteoarthritis can affect people differently: some people with this condition may experience little or not pain, whereas others are in so much pain that they find it difficult to move. Osteoarthritis can affect any joint in the body, but it is most common in the thumbs, fingers, knees, hips, lower back and neck.
How does osteoarthritis affect the joints?
Osteoarthritis used to be referred to as ‘wear and tear’ because it was thought the joints would inevitably deteriorate with age. We now know it’s a little more complicated than that. While osteoarthritis does become more likely with age, it is not inevitable.
All joints contain a smooth yet firm tissue called cartilage, which enables the bones to move freely and acts as a shock absorber. If that joint develops osteoarthritis, the cartilage becomes thinner, worn or damaged which stops it moving as smoothly as normal. When this happens the body tries to repair itself by causing inflammation.
Unfortunately, this can sometimes lead to pain, swelling and difficulty moving. Sometimes extra bones will form and change the shape of the joint, making it look lumpy or out of shape. The lining of the joint capsule (synovium) can sometimes become thicker and cause painful swelling. You can also sometimes hear a crackling sound coming from the joint, this is called crepitus.
How does osteoarthritis occur?
No one knows for sure what causes osteoarthritis, but repeated little injuries which don’t heal completely could lead to this condition developing over time. Sporting injuries and broken bones can also lead to osteoarthritis in later life. Arthritis can be hereditary, so having members of your family with osteoarthritis can make it more likely that you will develop osteoarthritis yourself. Being overweight can put excess pressure on the joints, which can make arthritis more severe if you develop it. For good weight management tips on arthritis click this LINK.
Contrary to popular belief, being active and doing lots of exercise does not lead to arthritis - in fact, it can strengthen the muscles around the joints and promote a healthy weight which can actually reduce the risk factors that can lead to arthritis.
Doing exercise while you have osteoarthritis won’t make it worse either - as long as you’re careful and have correct form, exercise can actually improve the symptoms of arthritis and reduce pain because it can help strengthen the muscle around the joint to help you better support yourself.
For example, a study at Prince of Wales Hospital, Hong Kong found that a combination of joint mobilisation and exercise led to a significant decrease in pain for people with arthritis of the knee.
Key ways of spotting osteoarthritis
If you’re concerned that you may have arthritis, you should talk to a doctor who will be able to ask you some questions and offer a diagnosis. Arthritis is more likely:
- If you are over the age of 45, although it can also affect younger people.
- If you experience pain and/or stiffness of the joints in the morning which lasts for 30 minutes or longer.
- If you experience a crackling or ‘creaking’ sound from the joint.
- If you feel weakness around the joint - if you have arthritis in the hand, for example, you may find it harder to grip objects.
- If you can see a bony swelling around the joint.
- If you experience pain or tenderness in the joint, especially after exercise or constant movement, such as walking up the stairs or cooking.
The doctor normally won’t have to do any tests to diagnose osteoarthritis, but sometimes X-Rays and/or blood tests can be carried out to eliminate other possible conditions.
Recently, some exciting developments in machine learning have created the potential to detect subtle signs of osteoarthritis (which the naked eye cannot see) years before symptoms develop. This exciting innovation could mean that one day patients will be treated with preventative drugs which could stop osteoarthritis developing before it comes symptomatic, meaning that the pain associated with arthritis could one day be a thing of the past.
Osteoarthritis sounds scary, but there are plenty of self management techniques which you can use to manage the pain and live a full and active life. Keep moving - even if you don’t always want to! - and try to find a gentle activity, like tai chi, swimming or even dancing, which you enjoy. Keep an eye on your weight, eat a healthy diet and talk to your doctor of pharmacist for more advice. Check out the Flexiseq website for tips, insights and healthy recipes to help you live with osteoarthritis.