Do your joints sometimes feel stiff and achy? In the back of your mind, you wonder whether that achiness is arthritis, one of the most common age-related health issues. Although we often describe arthritis as one entity, it isn’t a single disease. The most common type in older people is osteoarthritis, but there are almost one hundred other types of arthritis, all of which cause varying degrees of joint pain, swelling, and stiffness.
Osteoarthritis, a degenerative form of joint disease, is by far the most common type, we’ll focus mostly on it in this article. In reality, you can’t diagnose osteoarthritis by reading an article, but knowing the hallmark signs of this degenerative form of arthritis will help you determine whether you should see a physician for a full evaluation and diagnosis.
How Osteoarthritis Happens
How does osteoarthritis start? With osteoarthritis, the cartilage, the material that pads the ends of bones, wears away. This often happens slowly and to varying degrees, depending on the individual. In the worst case, over time, the cartilage completely erodes, leaving the bones uncovered. As a result, the ends of the bones rub against one another. At one time, experts believed osteoarthritis was strictly a degenerative disease but there’s now evidence that there’s an inflammatory component to osteoarthritis as well.
What Signs and Symptoms Might You Experience
As you might expect, when you lose the cushioning that covers your bones, your joints ache, swell, and feel stiff. In fact, these are cardinal signs of osteoarthritis, although they can be markers of other forms of arthritis as well. With other types of arthritis, like rheumatoid, you might have additional symptoms, such as fatigue, fever, or weight loss. You typically won’t experience these signs and symptoms with osteoarthritis. Also, if you have joints, that are markedly red or swollen and inflamed, it could be another type of joint problem such as another form of arthritis or even gout.
Typically, with osteoarthritis, joint pain and stiffness get worse as the day goes on and improve with rest. Morning stiffness usually isn’t a prominent symptom of osteoarthritis. It’s more likely that the discomfort will be less in the morning after resting overnight. One of the first signs of osteoarthritis of the knees is often pain when walking up a flight of stairs. Do your knees crack a lot when you squat down or bend them? Those crackling noises are called crepitus and are a common complaint in people with osteoarthritis. However, noisy knees don’t always mean you have arthritis.
Are You at High Risk for Arthritis?
Anyone can develop osteoarthritis, and most people over the age of 50 have some signs of it on x-ray. But, certain risk factors place you at higher risk. These include:
· Strong family history of osteoarthritis
· Being overweight or obese
· A previous injury to a joint or joints
· Being female
· Working a job that requires repetitive squatting or bending
· Participation in a sport that requires repetitive motion around a joint. (football)
Being overweight or obese greatly increases the risk of developing osteoarthritis of the knees. The more body weight you carry on your frame, the more pressure and stress you place on your knees. When you go up and down stairs, the force is magnified. In fact, each additional pound of weight you carry, adds up to 4 pounds of additional force to your knees. Your knee joints may weather that amount of pressure for a while, but it eventually takes its toll and symptoms develop.
Women have almost twice the risk of developing osteoarthritis relative to men and the risk for women escalates after the age of 50. No one knows exactly why you’re at higher risk if you’re female, but estrogen may play a role as joint cartilage has receptors for estrogen on their surface. Women also have less cartilage cushioning their bones relative to men.
How Do You Know if You Have It?
Although your symptoms might be suggestive of osteoarthritis, the only way to get a proper diagnosis is to see a physician. A health care professional can often make the diagnosis based on symptoms only, although they might recommend x-rays. On x-ray, physicians look for signs like bone spurs, calcifications, and narrowing of the joint space, the space between two bones as confirmation. The degree of osteoarthritis that shows up on a plain x-ray doesn’t always correlate with the degree of joint pain. You might have a film that shows very little evidence of joint damage but have marked symptoms and vice versa. If you have severe joint pain, swelling, or redness, your physician might want to rule out other forms of arthritis or conditions like gout or an infection in a joint. If that’s the case, they may recommend blood tests or use a needle to take a sample of the joint fluid and send it to a lab for testing. If the diagnosis is still in question, they may suggest further imaging of the affected joints with an MRI study.
Are There Natural Treatments for Osteoarthritis?
Physicians often prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications to relieve the pain and inflammation of arthritis short-term, but these medications have side effects, some of which are serious. One of the best natural treatments for osteoarthritis is to lose weight if you’re overweight. Doing so reduces the force the joints are forced to bear. Health care professionals used to recommend that patients with osteoarthritis limit exercise, but studies show exercise can reduce stiffness and help maintain the function of the joint. Low-impact cardio, strength training, yoga, and tai chi are all beneficial for knee osteoarthritis based on studies.
Although strong evidence is lacking, eating an anti-inflammatory diet may help. In one meta-analysis, five studies showed that ginger helps alleviate the pain and stiffness of osteoarthritis. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables as well as long-chain omega-3’s from fish may also help by reducing inflammation. So, skip the processed foods and get your diet from whole foods.
The Bottom Line
Osteoarthritis is common and can worsen with age. If you have achy joints, get your symptoms checked out and make sure you’re leading a joint-friendly lifestyle.
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