Osteoarthritis: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment
Osteoarthritis is a long-term condition that occurs when there is damage in and around the joints which the body cannot fully repair. Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis in the UK, and unlike rheumatoid arthritis, it is not considered an inflammatory disease.
Osteoarthritis usually develops in people over 45 years of age, although younger people can also be affected. It is more common and the symptoms more severe in women than in men.
What Is Osteoarthritis?
The ends of the bones are coated with a layer of hard, smooth tissue called cartilage, which helps to cushion the bones, and allows for smooth and pain-free movement of the joints. In between the bones and cartilage layers, there is a thick fluid called synovial fluid, which lubricates the joints.
As with all bodily tissues, if the cartilage gets damaged, the body will attempt to repair it. But if the joint is affected by osteoarthritis, the body cannot repair these tissues if they get damaged or worn out.
The bone underneath the damaged cartilage thickens and can form growths, known as spurs or osteophytes. The ligaments can sometimes thicken to try to support the joint, but this causes stiffness. Over time, the joint becomes painful and stiff, with limited range of movement.
The bones can start rubbing against each other and wear way, and the bony spurs can change the shape of the joint and the position of the bone.
Osteoarthritis can develop over time, meaning that you might not notice the symptoms until later stages of the condition. Symptoms to look out for are:
- Joint pain, particularly during movement, or at night
- Stiffness in the joint, especially after resting
- A grating or grinding feeling n the joint during movement
- Swelling around the affected joint
- Limited movement – you may not be able to move the joint as much or as smoothly as you used to
Causes of Osteoarthritis
It is hard to say what exactly the cause of osteoarthritis is, although it appears to be a combination of factors, including:
- Age: Osteoarthritis usually affects people over the age of 45. This could be due to the body being less able to heal itself in advanced age, or the joint simply becoming weaker over time.
- Gender: It is not clear why, but women are more likely to get osteoarthritis than men, and they tend to suffer more severe symptoms.
- Injury: Osteoarthritis can be triggered when a joint is damaged, and it is possible for it to develop years after the initial injury.
- Genetics: If a close family member, especially a sibling, suffers from osteoarthritis, it increases your risk of having it too.
- Obesity: You are more likely to suffer from osteoarthritis and the symptoms to be more severe if you are overweight or obese, and carrying the extra weight put excess strain on the joints, especially the hips and knees.
Other health conditions can also increase your chances of having osteoarthritis, including diabetes, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (a connective tissue disorder), alkaptonuria (a genetic disorder in which the body cannot process certain amino acids), and other joint disorders such as gout or rheumatoid arthritis.
Complications of Osteoarthritis
While there is no cure for osteoarthritis, there are medications available to help manage the symptoms, and lifestyle changes can also have a positive impact. The pain and limited mobility caused by osteoarthritis can affect a person’s ability to go to work or school and may prevent them from taking part in sports or other physical activities, although gentle, low impact exercise like swimming can be beneficial.
Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease that occurs when the joints become damaged and the body is unable to repair them properly, which causes pain and stiffness. It usually affects people over 45 but can occur in younger people too.
It is the most common form of arthritis in the UK, affecting over 8 million people. There is no cure for osteoarthritis, but the symptoms can be managed with lifestyle changes and medical treatments. If you are worried that you could have osteoarthritis, make an appointment with your GP to get a formal diagnosis and discuss potential treatments.
Lifestyle Tips for Osteoarthritis
- Exercise: This is essential for strengthening muscles, helping with weight loss, and improving your general fitness and posture. You may think that exercise can make the symptoms of osteoarthritis worse, but regular exercise can help to keep you active and mobile. Start off slowly with gentle, low impact exercises like swimming, cycling, exercise classes or yoga, and work your way up to 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise. Always discuss it with your doctor before starting a new exercise plan.
- Lose any excess weight: Being overweight or obese can put extra strain on the joints, especially in the lower body. Aim to lose weight slowly by eating a healthy, balanced diet and getting regular exercise, avoid ‘crash diets’ that promise rapid weight loss, as this is not sustainable and can leave you feeling fatigued. Losing weight slowly and sustainably is the best way to keep the pounds off.
- Use a heating pad or hot water bottle on affected joints to help ease pain and stiffness: Some people find ice packs can offer some relief from symptoms; just remember to wrap your ice pack in a towel or cloth to avoid skin damage.
- Wear comfortable flat shoes: High heels can affect the joints in your ankles, knees, hips and back, putting excess strain on them which can make symptoms worse. Stick to a low-heeled or flat shoe with soft, thick soles for added support.
- Use the handrail when going up stairs to avoid putting too much pressure on the lower joints. Some people may find a walking stick is helpful for osteoarthritis of the hip or knee.
Eating a healthy diet can improve your general health, help you lose excess weight, and provide your body with the essential nutrients it needs for supporting the joints.
Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, as they are vitamin-rich and full of antioxidants – substances that can help protect your cells from damage, and may also help reduce inflammation in the joints.
Avoid overly fatty or sugary foods, like sweets, takeaways, processed meats, fried food and baked goods, as they are low in nutrients, can contribute to weight gain and sluggishness, and in some cases may promote inflammation of the joints.
Choose lean meats like chicken and fish, low-fat dairy products like skimmed milk and cottage cheese, and look for plant-based sources of protein and good fat like nuts, seeds, avocados and olive oil.
Natural Remedies for Osteoarthritis
Glucosamine and Chondroitin
Both Glucosamine and Chondroitin are found naturally in the body, where they are used to build and repair cartilage in the joints. However, as we age, less is produced, which contributes to the breakdown of cartilage. Many people take Glucosamine and Chondroitin supplements for the relief of osteoarthritis pain and a recent study found that this combination helped to reduce joint pain and swelling by up to 50%, and increased quality of life factors such as mobility and self-care.
This essential vitamin is synthesised in the body as a reaction to natural sunlight and is found in small amounts in certain foods. Vitamin D is needed by the body for regulating levels of calcium and phosphorus and keeping bones and teeth healthy. Having a vitamin D deficiency can lead to bone deformities and osteomalacia. A study has identified vitamin D as a possible treatment for osteoarthritis – patients taking vitamin D supplements found that their painful symptoms decreased, and they also experienced significant improvements in joint function.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
The omega 3 fatty acids found in oily fish, nuts and seeds are required by the body for many essential processes. Studies have shown that they can help to reduce inflammation in joint tissues to relieve pain and stiffness. Inflammation in the joints accelerates the breakdown of cartilage and the loss of bone density, therefore increasing the intake of omega 3 can help to maintain healthy joint function.
This popular herb has many medicinal properties and is an effective anti-inflammatory agent, thought to be due to active components called gingerols. This could help to reduce swelling in the affected joints. Eat more ginger by adding it to food and drinks, or if you do not like the taste, you can take ginger supplements.