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When the diagnosis is osteoarthritis

As the population ages, more and more people are developing this disease.

You've heard your parents and grandparents talk about the aches and pains that sometimes come with growing older. But now you're experiencing them yourself.

Simply wear and tear?

Osteoarthritis (OA)—the most common form of the disease—tends to come on with age, according to the Arthritis Foundation. It most often affects middle-aged and elderly people.

OA is often blamed on "wear and tear" of the joints, but it's actually a disease of the entire joint. So although it is more common as we age, it's not really accurate to say the joints are "wearing out."

OA involves a breakdown of the cartilage (the tissue that cushions the ends of the bones between joints), bony changes in the joints, a deterioration of tendons and ligaments, and inflammation of the joint lining.

OA often occurs in the hands, spine, hips, knees and big toes. It's a top cause of disability in older people. There's no cure for the disease, but some treatments may help slow its progression.

How do you know if you have OA?

OA can affect people of all races and sexes—although it tends to occur in women more often than men.

Symptoms include:

  • Joint pain and stiffness.
  • Knobby swelling at the joint.
  • A cracking or grinding noise when you move the joint.
  • Reduced function of the joint.

OA usually occurs in people 40 and older. However, it can occur sooner if you have risk factors like a family history of OA, obesity, a joint deformity or a previous joint injury.

Get checked out

If you have joint pain or swelling, make an appointment with your doctor. You can take steps to reduce and cope with arthritis pain—it's not just something you need to tough out because you're getting older. Getting diagnosed is the first step toward feeling better.

There is no single sign, symptom or test to diagnose OA. That's one reason why it's important to describe your symptoms accurately to your doctor. In some cases, x-rays or other imaging tests may be used to assess how far the disease has progressed or rule out other joint problems.

Finding relief

There is no cure for OA. However, a number of treatments can ease your symptoms.

Medication. Over-the-counter meds, such as acetaminophen, can help relieve the musculoskeletal pain of arthritis. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) can be used to treat pain in younger people, according to the Arthritis Foundation. But NSAIDs should be used carefully in older people who may have chronic conditions (such as kidney disease or heart failure) and for whom NSAIDs have risks.

Other drug therapy. Your doctor might recommend topical medicines that you apply directly to the skin over affected joints. These drugs include capsaicin cream, lidocaine and diclofenac gel. Joint injections with corticosteroids or with a lubricant called hyaluronic acid can relieve pain for months at a time.

Weight loss and exercise. Excess weight puts stress on your knee joints and back, but that doesn't mean you should avoid exercise. According to the American College of Rheumatology, for every 10 pounds of weight you lose over 10 years, you can reduce your likelihood of getting OA by up to 50%. Exercise can also improve your muscle strength, reduce joint pain and stiffness and lower your likelihood of being disabled by OA.

OA generally worsens over time, although it stabilizes in some people. And some people with arthritis are able to function normally despite the pain. Work closely with your doctor to ease pain and keep as much function as you can.

Reviewed 10/25/2022

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