Family Health Diary

There are lots of different types of arthritis including arthritis associated with psoriasis and gout. I wrote about rheumatoid arthritis in July. This blog post is about osteoarthritis.

What is it?
Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, affecting about one in every ten adults in New Zealand. People of any age can develop osteoarthritis but it usually starts after the age of 40.

Osteoarthritis can affect any joint of the body but most commonly occurs in the hands and weight-bearing joints such as feet, ankles, knees and hips. It is like the joints are wearing out.

Normally the ends of our bones are covered in a smooth material called cartilage. This means the bones can slip over each other smoothly. Cartilage also cushions the joints as we use them for everyday activities, like walking.

In Osteoarthritis this cartilage begins to break down. There is then no smooth surface on the bones to move against each other. This causes pain and then difficulty in moving the joint. As the joint becomes more inflamed it starts to damage itself and cause further breakdown of the cartilage, bones and joints.

After a while (a few years) the ends of the bones may start to break down. This is very painful as the bones as literally rubbing against each other. They can develop boney growths called spurs and then parts of the bones may break off and get caught in the joint itself.

Whenever there is inflammation in the body there can be warmth, swelling, and pain. In osteoarthritis there can also be stiffness in the joints especially when getting out of bed in the morning or when you’ve been sitting for a while. The main symptom is ongoing pain in the joints; there can also be creaking of the joints when you move.

Early treatment and looking after yourself can slow down how fast the joints are being damaged. This can also reduce the amount of pain you are in now and in the future.

Paracetamol is the safest medication for pain for most people. Talk to your doctor about getting this on prescription. Even though you can purchase this from the pharmacy you should take it regularly to get the best effect.

You can purchase anti-inflammatory tablets in a pharmacy without a prescription, but if you are wanting to take then long term they are best taken under the supervision of your doctor. They can interact with some prescribed medicines and are not suitable for everyone.

You can purchase anti-inflammatory rubs from the pharmacy. Make sure you tell the pharmacist if you are already taking anti-inflammatory tablets or if you are on any other medicines. Some people find natural joint supplements containing glucosamine helpful. If your osteoarthritis becomes extremely painful your doctor might give you a steroid injection right into the joint.

There are special exercise classes for people with arthritis. There are some exercises that will not damage the joint and will give increased movement and strength. Walking and swimming are both usually helpful forms of exercise for people with osteoarthritis.

Being tired reduces your pain threshold. Keep exercise and other activities to sensible limits so you do not become over tired.

The final treatment for badly damaged joints causing ongoing pain will be joint replacement. You probably know people who have had a knee or hip replacement. This type of surgery can be life changing for those who require them.

How to stay healthy
Keep at a healthy weight for your body. If you are overweight this puts extra strain on your joints and they can wear out more quickly. Some repetitive physical activities can contribute to osteoarthritis. Occupations like competitive sports people, farmers, construction workers and dancers have increased chance of their joints being under long term stress. This is likely to increase your chance of getting osteoarthritis when you are older.

Make sure you go to the doctor if you have signs of arthritis that last for more than two weeks. Remember that early treatment will reduce long term damage and may prevent the need for a joint replacement in the future.

Written by Linda Caddick

This blog provides general information and discussion about medicine, health and related subjects. The information contained in the blog and in any linked mate­ri­als, are not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.

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