What is osteoarthritis?

As we age, so to do our joints. Throughout the course of our lifetime, the connective tissue and cartilage in our joints begins to wear down, leading to joint pain, stiffness and swelling. It can change how joint moves, sometimes making it feel loose or unstable – leading many people to stop being as active as they once were. This is how osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, effects countless Americans.

The Center for Disease Control estimates that over 32.5 million US adults suffer from some degree of osteoarthritis – with symptoms appearing in some patients as early as 40 years of age (or in some cases, even earlier). It is estimated that over half of all persons over the age of 65 suffer from osteoarthritis and although for some, osteoarthritis does not affect day-to-day activities – they may only experience joint discomfort after a rigorous hike through the Chiricahua National Monument – for others, it can cause significant disability and constant pain.

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Where does osteoarthritis commonly occur?

Weight bearing joints, such as your knees, hips, feet and spine, are commonly affected by osteoarthritis. Throughout the course of our lifetime, these joints bear the brunt of every step we take, day after day. Think of how much pressure we put on them, just to walk up a flight of stairs or get in and out of our car. It is also common to develop osteoarthritis in your fingers and hands.

Injuries that occur, even earlier in life, can either contribute to osteoarthritis in the future or can make the symptoms of arthritis worse. Surgery has also been shown to be a contributing factor of osteoarthritis, often times accelerating the aging of the joint. According to the Radiology Society of North America, there is increasing evidence that some of the most common surgeries performed to repair meniscal tears are detrimental to the knee joint, resulting in accelerated knee joint degeneration.

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What does arthritis feel like?

As mentioned above, osteoarthritis affects us all differently. However, some of the most common symptoms of osteoarthritis are joint stiffness, pain, inflammation and limited range of motion.

Arthritic pain of the knee may present itself suddenly, but in most cases there is a gradual onset of symptoms. Perhaps you notice some aching in your knees after an energetic hike, later this pain returns when you are walking up a flight of stairs. All of a sudden, it seems like that pain is present every day.

Stiff Joint
A classic symptom of arthritis is joint stiffness, especially after extended periods of inactivity – such as sleeping. If you’ve ever planned a road trip or taken a long flight and noticed stiffness in your knees when standing again, this could be a sign of knee osteoarthritis.

In some patients, there can be noticeable swelling and tenderness around the joint. This can be caused by a build up of fluid in the joint and can also make the knee feel warm, puffy and red.

Limited Range of Motion
Unfortunately, when the activities we love become painful, many of us stop doing them. With osteoarthritis, even daily activities can become too painful to manage. This can significantly reduce the activity levels of those who suffer from osteoarthritis, increasing their risk of other diseases – such as cardiovascular disease.

Osteoarthritis shouldn’t keep you from doing the things you love.

Osteoarthritis may seem like an inevitable consequence of aging – signs of a life well lived – but just because our joints are aging, doesn’t mean that they should stop us from enjoying the activities we love.

Next week we will explore some of the best treatments for osteoarthritis, and while there is no way to transform our joints into those of someone half our age, there are definitely options that can significantly improve our quality of life.