Do your joints hurt? Are they stiff? You may suffer from osteoarthritis — the wear-and-tear type of arthritis. More than 40 million Americans suffer from the joint disorder.
Osteoarthritis, or OA, is joint degeneration stemming from gradual loss of cartilage. It affects the hands, knees, hips and spine most often.
The common belief is OA is a consequence of aging, but we know that is not true. Your risk, however, does increase as you age. At least 80 percent of people older than 55 show signs of degeneration on X-rays, but not all of them have pain.
Women are two to three times more likely to suffer from OA, and obesity is another risk factor.
Work and sports also play roles in OA. Any occupation — such as carpentry and construction work — requiring heavy lifting, prolonged standing, and squatting and kneeling makes the disorder more likely. Running does not seem to increase the risk, but football, soccer, wrestling, boxing, baseball pitching, cycling and gymnastics do.
The symptoms usually begin at the onset of 40. The main symptom of OA is increased joint pain with activity, though it is alleviated by rest.
The pain may be referred to other areas; that is, you may feel pain in the knee when the degeneration is in the hip. Your joints may be stiff in the morning, and the stiffness may take 30 minutes to resolve after you wake up. Not moving the joint may make it stiffer, and weather — especially cold damp weather — may make the joint more painful.
There also may be swelling in the joint. As the joint surfaces become rough, you may get a crackling sensation when you move. When OA is severe, the pain may persist even while resting or sleeping.
Overweight people with OA benefit by losing weight, which reduces pressure on the joints. Other treatment options include medications, herbs, acupuncture, physical therapy, Qigong and dietary changes.
Doctors usually prescribe anti-inflammatory medications for OA. They are effective, but there are concerns medication may worsen the condition in time. Anti-inflammatory meds also have side effects on your stomach, blood pressure and kidneys.
Diets high in vitamin C and D may be protective. Helpful herbs and supplements include glucosamine, SAM-E (S-adenosylmethionine), Boswellia serrata and devil’s claw. Acupuncture is effective for OA of the knee and helpful for other joints. Severe OA sometimes requires assistive devices, such as canes or walkers. And some patients may find relief with heat or cold applications.
If all else fails, surgery with joint replacement is an option. There are new techniques with smaller incisions and shorter recovery times available to patients to live a fuller, pain-free life.
The best prevention is a healthy lifestyle, which includes maintaining normal weight and a whole foods diet.
Dr. Steinmetz is a board- certified family medical doctor based in Alexandria who uses conventional and integrative practices. She welcomes reader questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.