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Understanding osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis ranges from mild to severe. In all cases, treatment can help.

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. It usually affects the hands, spine and large weight-bearing joints, such as the knees and hips. Symptoms range from mild joint pain and stiffness to severe pain and even disability.

Causes and risk factors

While some younger adults develop osteoarthritis after a joint injury, the disease generally does not produce symptoms until at least midlife. That's because osteoarthritis is brought on by the breakdown of cartilage, the slippery tissue that covers the ends of bones in a joint. As we age, our cartilage gradually wears away.

As cartilage breaks down, the bones under it rub together, triggering pain, swelling, and loss of motion. Also, bone spurs—or small growths—may form on the edges of the bone.

Along with age, obesity is also a risk factor for the disease; extra weight can lead to osteoarthritis in the knees. Genetics may also play a role: Some people may be born with defective cartilage, increasing their risk.

Treating osteoarthritis

While osteoarthritis can't be cured, treatment can ease pain and improve joint movement. Typically, doctors advise a combination of remedies. Common treatments include:

  • Medication. Over-the-counter medications, such as aspirin, acetaminophen and ibuprofen, can often ease arthritis pain. But these drugs may irritate the stomach. If you are taking an over-the-counter drug and experience stomach problems, your doctor may prescribe a COX-2 inhibitor, a prescription pain reliever that's less likely to irritate the stomach. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned that some of these drugs increase the risk of heart attack or stroke, so the risks and benefits must be weighed on an individual basis. If your arthritis causes severe inflammation, your doctor may advise an injection of a steroid drug directly into the affected joint.
  • Heat and ice. A warm bath or compress may ease your pain and stiffness. Cold packs wrapped in a towel may also help, particularly if your pain follows activity. However, don't use either a cold pack or a warm compress for longer than 20 minutes.
  • Exercise. An exercise program can keep your joints flexible and strengthen your muscles. Talk to your doctor before starting an exercise program.
  • Weight loss. If you're overweight, taking off extra pounds can relieve stress on weight-bearing joints and prevent further joint damage.
  • Surgery. For severely disabling osteoarthritis, surgery may be an option. In total joint replacement, which is the most extensive type of surgery, doctors replace the entire diseased joint with a mechanical one.

Reviewed 12/21/2020

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