Osteoarthritis is also known as wear and tear arthritis, and it often develops after an injury or in older age, due to intensive pressure on the joints. There is no definitive cure for osteoarthritis, but there are many ways in which the condition can be managed or treated to prevent it worsening or leading to permanent damage.
It is important to seek help from a specialist rheumatologist as soon as you notice pain or swelling in your joints, because there are many different types of arthritis and the treatments and recommendations vary greatly. Ensuring that you are on the right treatment path for your condition and your lifestyle can help to reduce the overall impact on your life and maintain as much mobility as possible in the future.
What is Osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis is a very common form of arthritis, and it is characterised by pain and stiffness in the joints, as well as limited mobility. Some patients notice swelling or tenderness in the joints, as well as a grating or crackling sound when the joint is moved. Osteoarthritis can affect almost any joint in the body, but it is most common in the knees, hips and hands. All of these joints are in constant use, so pain can be debilitating, and the symptoms may come and go or may be severe and continuous.
Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage on the ends of your bones breaks down, which means that the body cannot protect and repair itself when joints are used or overused. Pain and swelling will develop, and bony growths may also occur in the affected areas.
Osteoarthritis is more likely to occur in people who have experienced a joint injury or have another form of arthritis, especially if there is a family history of the condition. The risk of developing osteoarthritis is higher in women, and increases as you age, and it often affects those who are obese.
Although osteoarthritis cannot be cured, treatments can be very effective in managing and reducing the symptoms, as well as limiting the long term impact of the condition. It is essential to work with an experienced rheumatologist to ensure that your condition is treated in the best way for you, as osteoarthritis can present very differently in different individuals, but treatment options may include the following:
1. Lifestyle changes: The pain caused by osteoarthritis can be eased considerably by lifestyle changes, which can also prevent long term damage to joints as part of a management plan. Increasing your regular exercise is a very important step to build muscles and improve flexibility, and maintaining a healthy weight is a great way to protect your joints. If you have not exercised before, you should discuss your options with your doctor or your rheumatologist, and a managed weight loss plan may make a big difference to your health if you are overweight.
You should work towards a target of at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity each week, focusing on exercises such as swimming and cycling that enable you to control the pressure on your joints. This is best undertaken in conjunction with strength exercises that work the main muscle groups in the body at least twice a week, so that you can maintain your overall health and fitness. This sort of exercise regime is only recommended for those with osteoarthritis, and a programme of weight bearing exercise is highly recommended for those with rheumatoid arthritis, so you can see that your precise diagnosis will have a big impact on the treatment path you are advised to take. Even the footwear that you choose may have an impact on your lifestyle and the severity of the pain you experience, and it is very important to ensure that you make choices to support your body and your health and reduce pressure on your joints.
2. Pain management. The pain caused by osteoarthritis can range from mild to severe, and many people find that it is easier to manage with medication. Some people use over the counter pain killers such as paracetamol, while others prefer anti-inflammatory medications, creams or injections. It is important to discuss your options with your rheumatologist or your doctor to find the best options for you, bearing in mind that most medications come with side effects, and that masking the pain may lead to overuse of the affected joints and cause the problem to worsen in the long term.
3. Supportive treatments: There are many types of alternative treatment that are seen to be effective in treating osteoarthritis, and these do not usually involve side effects. Some patients find great success with the use of a TENS machine, or with hot and cold packs, and physiotherapy is often very helpful. There are also several assistive devices that can make your daily life easier if you have osteoarthritis, and these may help to reduce the pressure on your joints and prevent further damage occurring as you age.
4. Surgery. In some cases of severe osteoarthritis, surgery may be suggested as an option to decrease the pain you are experiencing and improve your flexibility. This can range from partial or whole joint replacement to procedures that aim to remove and neaten excess tissues in the joints. Your rheumatologist will discuss the options with you if this is appropriate in your situation, and you will be able to consider the long term benefits of such intervention.
If you have any pain in your joints, you can ask your doctor to refer you for specialist treatment with an experienced rheumatologist. Your diagnosis will be made using techniques that include ultrasound and MRI scans, which will enable a full understanding of your condition and the likely impact on your life. There are many different types of arthritis and the treatment you are offered will vary according to your specific diagnosis and the way it affects you, aiming to limit the long term effects of the condition and to increase your mobility and flexibility.
Dr Peter is a qualified rheumatologist who sees patients in Tralee and Limerick. To make an appointment, you will need to visit your GP or other healthcare professional, who can refer you to our rheumatology clinic. If you have a query, you can contact us online for more information.