Osteoarthritis (OA) is a type of arthritis, a disease that affects the joints. It is characterized by a breakdown of joint cartilage (the elastic material that covers the ends of bones). It most commonly affects the hands, hips, knees and spine.
The role of cartilage is to absorb shocks and prevent the bones from rubbing against one another. As cartilage wears away, pain can occur, especially when moving the affected joints. Patients with OA may also experience the following symptoms:
- Joint stiffness
- Crackling or grating sensation when the joint moves
- Bony outgrowths on the joints
- Difficulty moving the joint
Causes and triggers
For a long time, OA was thought to be caused by normal wear and tear on joints. In fact, it appears to be the result of the body's failed attempt to repair damaged joint tissues that tends to worsen over time.
The following factors may also contribute to OA:
- Age (OA is more common in older individuals)
- Gender (women are more likely to develop OA)
- Being overweight or obese
- Certain occupations or activities (e.g., construction worker, elite athlete)
- Muscle weakness
- A sedentary lifestyle
- Deformities or previous injuries
Osteoarthritis is a disease that is chronic and irreversible. However, certain lifestyle changes and medications can help manage symptoms. The measures below may be used at home to help improve well-being and slow the progression of OA:
- Achieve a healthy weight
- Exercise (e.g., walking, yoga, tai-chi)
- Physical activity can improve mobility and lessen the pain and fatigue associated with OA
- It is recommended that adults engage in 150 minutes a week of moderate to vigorous activity, divided into periods of at least 10 minutes
- Apply heat or cold to the affected areas, placing a towel between the skin and the heat or ice
- Use devices to support muscles and joints (e.g., brace, cane, walker)
You may also benefit from working with a physiotherapist or occupational therapist. In addition to helping with joint protection, these health professionals can advise you on how to lessen the severity of your symptoms.
Pain relievers may be taken to alleviate the pain associated with OA. Acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol) is the most commonly recommended product for OA. Rubs (e.g., Voltaren Emulgel, Myoflex) may also be applied on the skin to relieve joint pain.
If these treatments are not enough to adequately relieve your joint pain, your pharmacist may suggest an anti-inflammatory (e.g., Advil). Injectable medications and surgery are usually reserved for severe cases.
Lastly, while many use natural products such as glucosamine and chondroitin to relieve OA pain, the efficacy of such products has not been proven. Speak to your pharmacist before trying these products.
When should I see a health professional?
Do not hesitate to speak to a health professional if your symptoms are affecting your quality of life.