About Your Diagnosis
Osteoarthritis (OA) is also called "wear and tear" arthritis
or degenerative joint disease. Osteoarthritis commonly affects the weight-bearing
joints of the body such as the hips, knees, and spine, but it may also
affect the hands. In OA, the cushion on the end of the bone, the cartilage,
begins to wear down resulting in pain.
Although the exact cause of OA is unknown, a variety of factors may
increase an individual's risk of developing OA. In the past, it was
believed that OA developed as an individual got older because the joints
"just wore out."
age is just one cause of OA. Obesity, repetitive movements, and a prior
severe injury to a joint can lead to OA. Osteoarthritis of the fingers
develops more frequently in women than in men. Osteoarthritis occurs
more frequently in some families.
Osteoarthritis is not an infectious illness. In other words, you cannot
"catch" OA from another individual. A physician can diagnose
OA by obtaining a medical history, performing an examination of the
joints, and ordering x-rays. An x-ray will show that the joint space
(where the cartilage separates the two bones) is narrowed or absent.
The x-ray may also show bone spurs that can be responsible for some
of the pain. Blood tests are usually normal in osteoarthritis.
Living With Your Diagnosis
Most individuals begin to notice OA as gradual joint pain and stiffness,
most commonly in the hands, knees, hips, and back. Pain and stiffness
usually worsen with activity and toward the end of the day. Osteoarthritis
may also affect the neck and feet. Pain and stiffness may make it more
difficult to perform some daily activities such as bending at the waist,
grasping or reaching for objects, turning the neck, and walking or climbing
stairs. There is no cure for OA; however, medications, exercises, and
assistive devices can decrease the pain and improve one's quality of
The best management of OA is a combination of different treatments.
Acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are used
to decrease the pain and stiffness. Potential side effects of NSAIDs
include stomach upset, ulcers, constipation, diarrhea, headaches, dizziness,
difficulty hearing, and a rash. The NSAIDs should be taken with food.
A physical therapist can provide exercises to strengthen muscles that
provide stability to the joints, which may help decrease pain. Water
exercise programs may be particularly beneficial because the water decreases
the stress on the joints. An occupational therapist provides hand exercises
and may discuss ways to do certain activities differently or suggest
an assistive device to avoid pain. Joint surgery such as a hip or knee
replacement may be recommended if the pain is particularly severe and
if an x-ray shows there is no space between the two bones of a joint.
* Take your medication as prescribed.
* Ask your doctor what over-the-counter pain medications you may take
with your prescription medications.
* Eat a well-balanced diet and lose those extra pounds if you are overweight.
* Perform a physician-prescribed exercise program, because exercise
can decrease the pain of osteoarthritis.
* Wait to see whether a side effect from the medication will go away.
* Overeat and assume a gain of 2 or 3 pounds a year will not affect
the pain of OA.
* Continue an exercise program that causes pain. If pain after exercise
continues, it usually means the exercise needs to be modified specifically
When to Call Your Doctor
* You experience any medication side effects.
* The medication and other treatments are not decreasing the pain.
* You believe you may need a referral to a physical therapist or an
For More Information
Contact the Arthritis Foundation in your area. If you do not know the
location of the Arthritis Foundation, you may call the national office
at 1-800-283-7800 or access information on the Internet at www.arthritis.org.