A Brief Look at Osteoarthritis

Dr. Norman B. Gaylis

What is osteoarthritis? How does it happen? Why you? How will it effect your daily life?

If you have recently found out that you have osteoarthritis or know someone who has osteoarthritis, these are probably some of the questions you have been asking. In this two-part article I would like to try and help you understand osteoarthritis and help you to learn to live with this condition. While this condition is not curable, it is very treatable, and there is no reason why your quality of life should significantly suffer due to this disorder.

Osteoarthritis is a name given to a condition that results when the smooth lining that covers the bones and the joints, namely the cartilage, starts to wear out. As the wearing away of the cartilage occurs, bones rub against bones and accounts for some of the noise heard when these joints move. Also, as a result of the friction, small spurs can form within the joints. As a result of this process, cartilage, which is a physiologic shock absorber, is destroyed and pain and discomfort on moving the joints starts to occur. In addition, muscles that support the joints may be come weak as people protect their joints by not moving them when the joints hurt.

It has to be remembered that osteoarthritis and its symptoms vary from individual to individual. The pain can be mild or very severe, and at times it may come and go. Some people may be disabled by it, while others may feel only a few twinges during damp, humid or cold weather.

The most commonly affected joints in osteoarthritis are those subjected to the most wear and tear during our lives, and this would include all weight bearing joints, in particular the hips, the knees and the feet. The thumb, which is the most actively used joint in the body, often gets osteoarthritis. There is a hereditary form that effects the joints at .the end of the finger, and this type causes the swelling and deformities of the distal knuckles of the hands. These deformities are called Heberden’s nodes. The spine, in particular the back and the neck, is also commonly affected by osteoarthritis and this is usually as a result of bad habits and bad body mechanics over a period of a lifetime. Bad body mechanics can include reading or watching TV in bed, sleeping on one’s stomach, wearing the wrong prescription lenses, being overweight, lifting and bending over without first bending at the knees.

In general, osteoarthritis develops slowly. One does not just wake up with it one day. While this condition is very prevalent in people over the age of sixty because of the wear and tear that their bodies have been subjected to, it can also occur in younger people for various reasons. In general, between 20 to 30 million Americans have osteoarthritis at this time.

As far as treating this disease is concerned, the important thing is to have it diagnosed and treated as soon as possible. It is important to try and eradicate any possible causative factors and to prevent long-term problems that can occur without therapy. The diagnosis should be established easily enough after a physical examination by someone who is an expert in the field of arthritis. At times, certain blood tests, which in fact in osteoarthritis are all normal, are needed to rule out other arthritis conditions. X-rays of the involved joints are usually suggested and if there is any fluid in the joint, this too can be examined and hell in establishing the diagnosis. Once the diagnosis is established, the goal? are to ease the pain and discomfort, reduce or prevent further disability and to help the patient to continue his/her usual activities as independently as possible.

It is important to recognize that the treatment does not depend or rely on drugs alone. While the anti-inflammatory medications and the aspirin-like drugs may be very important in reducing symptoms of inflammation, they do not correct the underlying problems that have caused the situation nor do they prevent the long-term disability that can occur.

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