Arthritis is a term used to describe more than 100 different conditions that affect the joints in the body. The word “arthritis” actually means inflammation of a joint. Almost every animal that can walk is susceptible to this inflammation. Although many types of arthritis have common aspects, each type has its own pattern of symptoms and affects different people in different ways.
Two major forms of arthritis are rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. In cases of rheumatoid arthritis, the body's immune system appears to go awry and attacks healthy parts of the body, particularly the joints. In severe cases, the joints become deformed and internal organs are adversely affected.
Osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, is also called degenerative joint disease or "wear and tear" arthritis. Almost everyone is affected by it to some extent as they grow older. It most frequently occurs in weight-bearing joints, mainly knees, hips and ankles.
This form of arthritis slowly and gradually breaks down the cartilage that covers the ends of each bone in a joint. Normally, cartilage acts as a shock absorber, providing a smooth surface between the bones; but, with osteoarthritis, the smooth surface becomes rough and pitted. In advanced stages, it may wear away completely. Without their normal gliding surfaces, the bones grind against one another, causing inflammation, pain and restricted movement. In osteoarthritis of the knee, the shape of the bone and appearance of the leg may change over the years. Many people become bowlegged or knock-kneed. In osteoarthritis of the hip, the affected leg may appear shorter.
While there is no cure for arthritis, advances in technology continue to develop new ways to manage symptoms of osteoarthritis. The goals of treatment are to reduce pain, increase the strength of the joints, maintain or improve joint movement and reduce the disabling effects of osteoarthritis. Treatment often depends on the joints involved and can include medicines, lifestyle changes, physical therapy and surgery.
The most common medications used to treat osteoarthritis are pain relievers known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). These include aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen and can be either over-the-counter or prescription medications. While NSAIDs often work well, long-term use of these drugs is not recommended as they can cause stomach problems, increased risk of heart attack or stroke and gastrointestinal bleeding.
Another medicine used to treat osteoarthritis is cortisone, a steroid injected directly into the joint. Cortisone injections are used to treat inflammation of the joint and pain. For some people these injections can reduce or relieve osteoarthritis symptoms for months or even years.
In addition to medication, there are a variety of lifestyle changes that can offer relief of osteoarthritis symptoms. These can include:
- Ice treatments – Ice packs on the knee (three times daily, 10-20 minutes at a time) can be helpful for inflammation and temporary relief of pain and soreness.
- Heat – Applying heat can be beneficial to warm up the joint prior to exercise or activity.
- Diet – While there is no evidence that any specific foods will prevent or relieve osteoarthritis symptoms, a balanced diet is important to maintain a healthy weight. Excess weight can aggravate arthritis by putting added pressure on the joints.
- Exercise and physical therapy can be beneficial in reducing symptoms of osteoarthritis by improving muscle strength and regaining motion in stiff joints. Water exercises, such as swimming, can be especially helpful as they provide exercise in a low-impact environment.
In some cases, surgery can be the best treatment option for osteoarthritis. The most common joint surgeries for osteoarthritis relief are arthroscopy and joint replacement. Arthroscopy is a minimally-invasive procedure used to diagnose and treat conditions of the joint using a small instrument that allows surgeons to see inside a joint and repair problems through a very small incision. Unfortunately, arthroscopic procedures generally are not helpful for arthritis. In some cases, a flap of torn knee cartilage can aggravate arthritis and cause additional pain. The cartilage flap can be removed by arthroscopy and may reduce or eliminate the pain.
Joint replacement surgery can be a very effective solution to the pain and disability of advanced osteoarthritis. During joint replacement, the rough, worn surfaces of the joint are relined with smooth-surfaced metal and plastic components.
Learn more about arthritis in the knee with this interative video: