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Osteoarthritis Health Center

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Frequently Asked Questions About Osteoarthritis

  • What Is Osteoarthritis?
  • Answer:

    Osteoarthritis is known as “wear-and-tear” arthritis. Over time, there is gradual breakdown of cartilage -- the cushion that covers the ends of bones and allows joints to move easily. When cartilage wears thin, bones rub against each other -- causing stiffness, pain, and difficulty in movement, which are hallmarks of osteoarthritis.

  • Who Gets Osteoarthritis?
  • Answer:

    Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis in the United States, affecting nearly 27 million people -- mostly middle-aged and older people. While women tend to have more osteoarthritis problems than men do, everyone’s risk increases as they get older.

  • What Causes Osteoarthritis?
  • Answer:

    While there isn’t any single cause of osteoarthritis, there are several risk factors associated with it. These include advancing age, excess weight and obesity, and history of joint injury and/or overuse. Family history of osteoarthritis is also a risk factor.

  • What Are the Symptoms of Arthritis?
  • Answer:

    The knees, hips, fingers, neck, and lower back are most commonly affected by osteoarthritis. Most often, the disease develops gradually -- starting as soreness or stiffness that seems more of a nuisance than a medical concern. Pain may be moderate, intermittent, and is generally worse with activity. The pain may not initially interfere with your day-to-day existence. In time, however, it may interfere with your everyday functioning and quality of life.

    The most common symptoms of osteoarthritis are:

    • Joint soreness after overuse or long periods of inactivity
    • Stiffness after periods of rest that goes away quickly when you’re active again
    • Morning stiffness, which usually lasts no more than 30 minutes
    • Pain caused by the weakening of muscles surrounding the joint due to inactivity
    • Joint pain that is usually less in the morning and worse in the evening after a day’s activity
    • Difficulty with posture and walking due to pain and stiffness

  • How Is Osteoarthritis Diagnosed?
  • Answer:

    To diagnose osteoarthritis, your doctor will take a medical history, perform a physical exam, and may order blood tests or request X-rays. You may be referred to an arthritis specialist called a rheumatologist. Other health professionals that treat osteoarthritis include orthopedic surgeons, physical therapists, and occupational therapists.

  • What Is the Treatment for Osteoarthritis?
  • Answer:

    Early diagnosis and treatment is the first step in successful management of osteoarthritis. The type of treatment selected depends on many factors including your age, overall health, and the severity of the arthritis.

    Treatments include over-the-counter pain relievers, supportive devices (such as canes or crutches), hot and cold compresses applied to painful joints or surrounding muscles, exercise, and other weight control methods. Surgery may be considered in more severe cases.

    Your doctor may also prescribe medications but will often start by having you try over-the-counter remedies (such as acetaminophen) and suggesting that you make some healthy lifestyle changes.

  • What Can I Do to Help Myself Deal With Osteoarthritis?
  • Answer:

    Exercise: Exercise is the most effective nondrug treatment for reducing pain and improving movement. Moderate physical activity on a regular basis reduces fatigue, strengthens muscles and bones, increases flexibility and stamina, and improves your general sense of well-being.

    Weight Loss: Maintaining a healthy weight -- or losing weight if you are overweight -- can lessen your pain by reducing stress on joints. Weight loss helps ease pressure on the hips, knees, back, and feet.

    Emotional Well-Being: Mild depression can often be eased through such things as social interaction, journaling, exercise, or doing something you find fun, such as shopping or seeing a funny movie. However, if your depression is something deeper or more long-lasting than just a mild case of the blues, it is not something to suffer through silently. Talk to your doctor about what you are feeling. He or she can help.

    Relaxation and Sleep: Learning to relax is an important part of dealing with the stress of a chronic medical condition such as osteoarthritis. Deep breathing, progressive relaxation, and creative or guided imagery are techniques that can help.

    Other methods of relaxation, such as biofeedback or self-hypnosis, are also available but may require instruction from a doctor or other health care professional.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on January 14, 2015

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