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Don’t Let Osteoarthritis Get the Best of You

If you have the degenerative joint disease known as osteoarthritis, you're not alone. The disease affects 27 million Americans. There is no cure, but you can manage the symptoms through treatment and proper self-care.

Do you wonder how you happened to get osteoarthritis? It turns out the answer isn't always clear. Osteoarthritis has no single known cause, but certain risk factors can increase your chances of developing the disease. They include:

  • Getting older. Half of adults will develop osteoarthritis of the knee by age 85.
  • Gender. Women are more likely to develop osteoarthritis, though experts aren't sure why.
  • Being overweight. Every extra pound adds 3 pounds of pressure to your knees and 6 pounds to your hips.
  • Overusing or injuring a joint. Jobs that place repetitive stress on a joint, or an accident or sports injury can make you more likely to develop osteoarthritis.
  • Having a family member with osteoarthritis.
  • Having muscle weakness around the knees.
  • Having other diseases. Diabetes, underactive thyroid, gout or Paget's disease can increase your risk.

Most Common Symptoms
"Osteoarthritis is a breakdown of the shock-absorbing cartilage in the joints and is the most common form of arthritis," said Lourdes rheumatologist Richa Mishra, MD. "It usually occurs in the weight-bearing joints of the hip, knees and spine, as well as the fingers, neck and large toe."

While osteoarthritis doesn't have the same effect on everyone, knowing the common symptoms can alert you to see a doctor for a diagnosis.

Symptoms usually develop gradually, and pain levels can vary from moderate to severe. Intense pain can seriously hamper your ability to walk, work or sleep. According to Dr. Mishra, typical symptoms include:

  • Pain. Your joint may hurt during or after movement. The pain can be sharp or burning, and can be worse in the evening.
  • Stiffness. Your joints may feel stiff and creaky following a period of inactivity, such as when getting up in the morning. The stiffness usually improves after 30 minutes of activity.
  • Muscle weakness, especially with arthritis of the knee.
  • Tenderness and swelling.
  • Reduced range of motion. You may not be able to fully bend, flex or extend your joints. This may affect your coordination, posture and gait.

What Often Helps
While medications can reduce inflammation and pain, probably one of the best treatments for osteoarthritis is exercise.

"It may seem paradoxical, as osteoarthritis can make it painful to move," said Dr. Mishra. "Yet repeated motion is needed to maintain normal joint health. Exercise can preserve or expand range of motion, as well as aid in controlling weight, which in turn lessens stress on the joints."

Dr. Mishra recommends yoga to help osteoarthritis. Through specific movements and postures, called asanas, controlled breathing and meditation, yoga emphasizes postural alignment, strength and balance.

"As with any new activity, it's best to talk to your doctor first," she said. "Many poses can be modified or performed in a chair or bed, so yoga is safe for people even with physical limitations."

If these therapies fail to ease the symptoms, surgical options may be suggested. Minimally invasive surgery can remove bone spurs or fragments in the affected joint, for instance. More extensive procedures can realign bones, fuse joints or replace joints.

Through pacing and planning your activities, following your doctor's treatment advice and embracing effective self-care, it's possible to live well with osteoarthritis.

To find out more, visit the Arthritis Foundation's website at www.arthritis.org.

Last reviewed: April 2013

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