Dealing with osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is a common type of arthritis in which there is a gradual loss of cartilage from the joints. Common osteoarthritis symptoms include pain, stiffness, and some loss of joint motion, swelling and changes in the shape of affected joints. Although osteoarthritis can affect almost any joint, it most often affects the hands, knees, hips, and spine.

Osteoarthritis is a chronic condition that gradually worsens over time; however, there are several measures that may slow its progression and control symptoms. The diagnosis of osteoarthritis is the first step in ensuring the appropriate treatment of osteoarthritis.

Osteoarthritis has no specific cause. Several factors are associated with the development of this condition.

Various genetic traits have been found to make a person more likely to develop the condition. One possibility is a rare defect in the body’s production of collagen, the protein that makes up cartilage. This abnormality can cause osteoarthritis to occur as early as age 20. Other inherited traits may result in slight defects in the way the bones fit together so that cartilage wears away faster than usual. 

 Advancing age is one of the strongest risk factors for osteoarthritis. The condition rarely occurs in people younger than age 40, but at least 80 per cent of people over age 55 are found to have some features of osteoarthritis upon medical evaluation, although it may not have any associated symptoms.

Women are at an increased risk of developing osteoarthritis, and found to be two and three times more likely than men to develop the condition.

People who are obese are at a higher risk of developing the condition and weight loss may reduce this risk.

Osteoarthritis of the knee has been linked to certain occupations that require frequent squatting and kneeling such as carpentry.

Osteoarthritis of the hip has been linked to farm work, construction work, and other activities that require heavy lifting, prolonged standing, or walking several miles each day.

The risk of developing this condition is increased in those who participate in certain sports including wrestling, boxing, pitching in baseball, cycling, parachuting, cricket, gymnastics, soccer, and football. However, running does not appear to increase the risk.

The diagnosis of osteoarthritis includes a medical history and a physical examination. These may be followed by laboratory tests, and radiological investigations such as X-rays and a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. 

The doctor might numb and insert a needle into the affected joint to withdraw a fluid. The fluid will be examined for evidence of crystals or joint deterioration. This test can help rule out other medical conditions or other forms of arthritis.

Osteoarthritis is a chronic (long-term) disease. There is no cure, but treatments are available to manage symptoms. Long-term management of the disease will involve management of symptoms and preventing the condition from worsening.

Excess weight adds additional stress to weight-bearing joints, such as the hips, knees, feet and back. Losing weight can help people with osteoarthritis reduce pain and limit further joint damage. The basic rule for losing weight is to eat fewer calories and increase physical activity.

Slow, gentle stretching of joints may improve flexibility, lessen stiffness and reduce pain. Exercises such as yoga are great ways to manage stiffness.

Medicines for osteoarthritis are available in many forms such as pills, syrups, creams or lotions, or they are injected into a joint and one’s doctor might choose any depending on the clinical assessment.

Physical and occupational therapists can provide a range of management options to ease the condition including; ways to properly use joints, hot and cold therapies, range of motion and flexibility exercises and assistive devices such as  scooters, canes, walkers, splints.

Joint surgery repair or replacement can be the option for severely damaged joints, especially hips or knees. This is done by a specialist doctor in the diseases of the bones (orthopedic surgeon).

Dr. Ian Shyaka ,

Resident in Surgery, Rwanda Military Hospital,