Preventing the Progression of Osteoarthritis
Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, and one of the leading causes of pain and disability in America. About 27 million Americans struggle with OA, but some of those people may not even know they have the progressive joint disease. In fact, the stiffness, inflammation and pain of OA only tends to show up once you’re passed the early stages of the disease.
Although you may not be able to eradicate your OA, there’s plenty you can do to control – and perhaps reverse – the symptoms. The right treatment will depend on the stage of your OA, and what joints it affects, so understanding how the illness progresses is important for a targeted plan of attack.
How OA Moves through the Body
OA can start off mild, with intermittent stiffness and pain in the joints. However, it is a progressive disease, which means that once the joints have begun to degenerate, the process will likely continue slowly and steadily. The pain and stiffness stem from a few main processes:
- Cartilage disintegration. The main aspect of OA is the thinning of the cartilage that caps the ends of bones. As the cartilage wears down, there is less protection for the bones.
- Deficient cartilage repair. Although cartilage is not easily rebuilt, many medical experts believe a healthy body is able to heal and rejuvenate damaged cartilage.
- Synovial inflammation. Synovial fluid is a thick liquid in the joints that eases friction between the bones for easier movement. In OA, this liquid becomes inflamed, causing pain and swelling.
Physical degeneration begins in the joints often before symptoms show up, but the pain and discomfort tend to move in a predictable pattern.
Early stage: You probably won’t notice when the cartilage in your joints begins to thin out, since cartilage has no nerves. But as the layer of cartilage continues to wear down, the friction that comes with joint movement will start to bother the bones underneath. You might feel tender points when you press down on your affected joints.
Moderate stage: In this stage of OA, pain tends to worsen as the day goes on, and it may lead to sudden weakness – the feeling of a knee or ankle giving out on you. At this point, cartilage has worn down quite a bit and the ends of the bones begin to thicken, leading to protruding, tender bumps known as bone spurs. The less active you are, the more pronounced your muscle weakness will be, and the more likely you will need to start taking medication to control the pain and inflammation.
Late stage: At this point, most of your synovial fluid has been lost, and other inflammatory fluids could start to crowd and inflame the joint. As bone rubs on bone, more swelling, pain, and stiffness results, and you’ll need to take more measures to control the discomfort. Some patients can increase or adjust their pain medication, but others may need to have surgery to replace the joint.