Stiff Joints Stealing Your Joy? What You Can Do about Osteoarthritis …
By K. LEIGH WISOTZKEY
“I used to, but I just can’t do it anymore…”
It’s a statement heard from people everywhere, whether they’re talking about dancing, crafting, working, or taking long, peaceful walks. Stiff, painful joints, especially in the hands, fingers, and knees, have become a widespread complaint that keeps many people from enjoying the activities that once filled their lives.
From sports and exercise to needlepoint or knitting, arthritis is wreaking havoc on people’s hobbies, careers, and their lives in general. As much as we may try to embrace getting older, the onset of osteoarthritis can definitely put a damper on living life to the fullest. But, as they say, it beats the alternative … So, what to do?
All Arthritis/Joint Disease is Not the Same
There are many types of arthritis, osteoarthritis being the most common.
Osteoarthritis is a non-inflammatory, slow, progressive, degenerative joint disease, generally associated with aging, although some athletes can develop it at a younger age due to the overuse of joints.
In contrast, rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory condition triggered by an autoimmune response in genetically predisposed individuals. In rheumatic arthritis, joint inflammation can lead to joint damage and deformities over a short period of time.
These and other joint diseases make up the medical field of rheumatology.
“Rheumatology is a challenging field of medicine that involves diverse arrays of disease, including RA, OA, and gout, as well as systemic involvements such as vasculitis and connective tissue diseases like lupus, Sjogren’s, or systemic sclerosis,” says Myo-Pale’ Aye, M.D., a WellSpan rheumatologist.
“I am fascinated with the complexity of rheumatic diseases and the cognitive challenge to reach a unified diagnosis, and formulating optimal treatment plans for my patients.”
Are You at Risk or Do You Have OA?
If you have started to notice a little aching in your knees lately, you may be wondering if it’s arthritis creeping in. If you’re in the 40+ age bracket, it’s a strong possibility. But even if you’re younger, depending on your lifestyle, it could be showing up earlier.
Osteoarthritis doesn’t play favorites between men and women — it affects both genders equally. Women tend to have it predominantly in their knees and hands, while any joints can be affected in men. It is common after the age of 40-45, although men tend to have symptoms at a younger age (under 45) than women (over 45).
The fact is that osteoarthritis is the most prevalent joint disease, as degenerative joints occur in everyone due to aging and repetitive activities.
Your propensity for this condition also depends on your lifestyle, occupation, and degree of joint use over a lifetime. Hand joints, spine, and weight-bearing joints (hips, knees, and first toe joints) are the most commonly affected joints.
Increasing age and obesity are the strongest risk factors for osteoarthritis. Of course, genetic predisposition, repetitive activities, and trauma can also contribute to the development this disease.
And though some may think chemotherapy causes osteoarthritis, stiff and painful joints are typically a side effect, although patients with osteoarthritis may experience worsening symptoms from chemo or radiation treatments.
Take a look at these typical symptoms of osteoarthritis:
• Pain and stiffness in involved joints, leading to limited joint mobility that could result in a significant disability
• Pain that worsens with physical activities but improves with rest
• Bony enlargement seen in affected joints over time
• Creaking or grinding sensations at the involved joints
If you think this may be you, know that, when it comes to diagnosing osteoarthritis, it’s mainly based on clinical symptoms and radiographic (X-ray) changes. An MRI is usually not necessary, unless ligament or tendon involvement is suspected.
Is There a Cure?
“Osteoarthritis is a chronic condition, so unfortunately, no method has been found to reverse or stop the disease process,” says Aye.
“However, there are multiple treatments, including physical/aquatic therapy, focusing on muscle strengthening and flexibility. Treatment also can include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), both oral and/or topical agents, analgesics, and intra-articular steroids or viscosupplement injections,” she adds.
Surgical intervention is typically reserved for patients with end-stage osteoarthritis that has not responded to standard therapy and that causes severe pain, affecting a patient’s daily activities and quality of life. Knee and hip replacement surgery are the most common osteoarthritis surgeries.
What Can You Do?
Though aging is inevitable, there are a few things that may help slow things down and/or ease the pain. If you are inclined to try supplements, glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate are commonly used.
“However, they are considered dietary supplements and not regulated by the FDA,” Ayers cautions. “The efficacy of these drugs is unclear in clinical studies in terms of pain reduction and improvement in functional capacity of patients with osteoarthritis.”
As with many conditions, a healthy lifestyle and good choices can go a long way in managing symptoms in a way that preserves your quality of life. Weight management, physical activities focusing on muscle-strengthening exercises, and appropriate footwear may delay the disease progression, reduce symptoms, and improve function.
Many people don’t like to hear that diet and exercise are so critical, and many women don’t want to forego the cute shoes, but what are you willing to do to keep hiking (or whatever it is that brings you joy) into your golden years?