Osteoarthritis: What It Is and How to Treat It

Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common type of arthritis in older people. OA starts when cartilage begins to become ragged and wears away. Cartilage is the tissue that pads bones in a joint. At OA's worst, all of the cartilage in a joint wears away, leaving bones that rub against each other. Elders are most likely to have OA in hands, neck, lower back, or the large weight-bearing joints of the body, such as knees and hips.

Osteoarthritis symptoms can range from stiffness and mild pain that comes and goes with activities like walking, bending, or stooping to severe joint pain that keeps on even when the elder is resting or trying sleep. Sometimes OA causes joints to feel stiff when your elderly parent hasn't moved them in a while, like after riding in the car. But the stiffness goes away when you move the joint. In time OA can also cause problems moving joints and sometimes disability if your elderly mom or dad's back, knees, or hips are affected.

Growing older is what most often puts people at risk for OA. Other than that, scientists think the cause depends on which part of the body is involved. For example, OA in the hands or hips may run in families. OA in the knees can be linked with being overweight. Injuries or overuse may cause OA in joints such as knees, hips, or hands.

Medicines can help your aging parent control OA pain. Rest and exercise will make it easier for your elderly mom or dad to move your joints. Keeping their weight down is a good idea. If pain from OA in the knee is very bad, the doctor might give your parent shots in the joint. This can help them to move their knee and get about without pain. Some people have surgery to repair or replace damaged joints.

Osteoarthritis usually happens gradually over time. Some risk factors that might lead to it include:

  • Being overweight
  • Getting older
  • Joint injury
  • Joints that are not properly formed
  • A genetic defect in joint cartilage
  • Stresses on the joints from certain jobs and playing sports

How Is Osteoarthritis Diagnosed?

Osteoarthritis can occur in any joint. It occurs most often in the hands, knees, hips, and spine. Warning signs of osteoarthritis are:

  • Stiffness in a joint after getting out of bed or sitting for a long time
  • Swelling or tenderness in one or more joints
  • A crunching feeling or the sound of bone rubbing on bone.

No single test can diagnose osteoarthritis. Most doctors use several methods to diagnose the disease and rule out other problems:

  • Medical history
  • Physical exam
  • X rays
  • Other tests such as blood tests or exams of the fluid in the joints.

How Is Osteoarthritis Treated?

Doctors often combine treatments to fit a patient's needs, lifestyle, and health. Osteoarthritis treatment has four main goals:

  • Improve joint function
  • Keep a healthy body weight
  • Control pain
  • Achieve a healthy lifestyle

Osteoarthritis treatment plans can involve:

  • Exercise
  • Weight control
  • Rest and joint care
  • Non-drug pain relief techniques to control pain
  • Medicines
  • Complementary and alternative therapies
  • Surgery

The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, one of the 27 Institutes and Centers of the National Institute of Health (NIH), supports research into the causes, treatment, and prevention of arthritis and musculoskeletal and skin diseases.

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