Don’t you love those commercials on TV that show a person with arthritis pain taking an over-the-counter pain reliever and suddenly he or she is playing sports or hiking and happily free of pain? Don’t you wish it was that easy? One pain reliever and you’re cured? If you’re one of the millions of people struggling with osteoarthritis, you know that it doesn’t quite work that way.
Osteoarthritis (OA) tops the list as the primary cause of disability and the most typical reason people go to a doctor. If you look at the many studies in the National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine, you might be surprised to learn that OA is the most common joint disorder in the U.S. and it’s the leading cause of disability across all developed countries. The truth is it’s a devastating problem that is challenging doctors everywhere because studies show that pretty much everyone has some symptoms in one or more of their joints by the age of 60, but the underlying cause remains an unknown. What is known is that men and women are struggling with the disabling impact and the costs and, if you’re a woman, you have a greater chance of being impacted after age 55. What’s very concerning are the projections that show the numbers of people dealing with OA are expected to rise because our population is aging and because of the number of people who are overweight or obese.
It’s pretty likely that you or someone you care about is hurting and frustrated because of OA. Getting the facts and understanding your options will empower you because that’s how you make informed decisions, so let’s get to it.
OA is also called degenerative joint disease because it literally means wear and tear. Cartilage is the protective cushion between the bones in your joints and when it wears down, you are left with bones rubbing on bones. The breakdown of cartilage in joints is what gives way to OA, which most typically occurs in the neck, spine, hands, knees and hips. This most common form of arthritis can occur at any age because of an injury or weight issues as well as because of aging joints. Other causes can include overuse of a joint, repetitive stress that can occur in sports and in some jobs. You can be genetically at risk and you may have other medical issues like gout and diabetes that put you in the high risk category.
Do you know the first signs of OA? Typically, you start to feel stiffness and pain in a joint. It’s more obvious when you first get out of bed in the morning or after you’ve been sitting for a long time. For people 45 or older, your first sign of trouble will likely be in one of your knees and you’ll feel it when you are walking or climbing stairs as well as after standing for a while. One of the classic signs is a sort of sudden catching feeling or a sensation that your knee is suddenly giving way when you’re engaged in some kind of physical activity.
As the day goes on, the pain will probably get worse as your activity level increases, but you’ll feel some relief when you rest. People with OA in their spine often report shooting pains, weakness or a feeling of pins and needles in their legs or arms. Loss of flexibility, tenderness in a joint that becomes obvious with even light pressure on that joint, or a sort of grating sensation in the afflicted joint that you might even hear are among the other common symptoms.
The first step to getting OA under control is a proper diagnosis. If you’ve been having pain in one of your joints or a feeling of stiffness and a few weeks has gone by and it hasn’t gone away, it’s time to see a doctor. Before you go to your appointment, write down the key facts including when you first started feeling your pain. Write down whether you fell or injure yourself in anyway that may have brought on the pain and when that injury occurred. Write down what you are feeling and when you feel it most. Don’t forget to write down all medications and supplements you are taking and any medical conditions. Giving your doctor as much information as you can will make a big difference.
Expect that your doctor will perform a thorough examination and will likely order some tests to reach a diagnosis. If the diagnosis is OA, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that OA is a progressive disease that gradually worsens and there is no cure. The good news is there are ways to reduce pain, slow its progression and increase joint function.
Doctors are going to look at a treatment plan to improve your daily quality of life with an approach that is designed to relieve your pain and improve your joint function to deal with mobility issues.
It’s very likely your treatment will involve a combination of approaches that may include some lifestyle tweaking along with medication and physical therapy. Physical therapy is very often a part of the program and your physical therapy plan will be devised in consultation with your doctor based on how serious your OA is, your medical history, your symptoms, and any other personal information that may impact that plan. If you have a weight problem, it’s a critical factor that your doctor will discuss with you. Keep in mind that for every 10 pounds of excess weight, you increase the stress on your knees by 30 to 60 pounds. Literally, that weight is giving your knees a pounding.
Your physical therapy will likely focus on strengthening the muscles that support your joints and improving your overall flexibility and strength. Your physical therapist will be an important part of weight loss strategies to lose and maintain a healthier weight if that is a factor contributing to your condition. With the guidance of a physical therapist, the types of exercise and how long and often you do a specific exercise will be crucial to make sure you don’t overdo it or do it improperly, which can cause further complications. Talk to your physical therapist for advice on how to handle problems you may encounter like getting out of a chair or even a car. Coping mechanisms can help to reduce stress on the problem joint and with it, the pain.
The most important thought I want to leave you with is that getting OA diagnosed early and getting the proper treatment can make a significant difference. You and I keep talking about your quality of life because that’s what it’s all about isn’t it? It’s worth your time and attention to protect your quality of life and enjoy what each day has to offer.