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Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis

What is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a form of degenerative arthritis that occurs when the cartilage, a firm, rubbery material that covers and protects the ends of our bones, acting as our body’s shock absorber, breaks down exposing the bone. To make up for the loss of cartilage, bones can begin to grow outward and form painful bone spurs called osteophytes.

Causes | Stages | Symptoms | Prevention | Treatment

Where can you get Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common form of arthritis, affecting one in six Canadians. It is known as the “wear and tear” arthritis and is most common in our major load-bearing joints: the hips, knees and spine. However, OA can affect almost any joint in your body, including:

  • Ankle
  • Base of Big Toe
  • Base of Thumb
  • Elbow
  • Foot
  • Hand
  • Hip
  • Jaw
  • Knee
  • Low Back
  • Neck
  • Shoulder
  • Spine
  • Tips of Fingers
  • Wrist
Diagram of the joints most often affected by osteoarthritis - neck, shoulder, elbow, lower back, base of thumb, hip, tips of finger, knee, ankle, and the base of the big toe

This is by no means a comprehensive list, if you feel you may have OA of any joint, please seek an assessment from a qualified physiotherapist near you.

What Causes Osteoarthritis?

There is no one single cause of osteoarthritis. However, there are risk factors that can increase your likelihood of developing it, including:

  • Increasing age, especially being over 65
  • Being overweight
  • Gender: women are more likely to develop
  • A family history of osteoarthritis
  • Previous injuries to the joint
  • Long-term repetitive strain

What are the Stages of Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative condition meaning that the cartilage in the joint slowly breaks down and wears away. As osteoarthritis progresses, the cartilage becomes rougher and continues to break down, ultimately causing an overgrowth of the bone underneath. Osteoarthritis develops and progresses over many years, the progression of which is measured in four stages, doubtful, mild, moderate, and severe.

Diagram of knee joint illustrating how the osteoarthritis affects the cartilage in different stages of the disease.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Osteoarthritis?

Common signs and symptoms of osteoarthritis vary depending on how far the condition has progressed and the joint affected. The most common symptom of osteoarthritis is pain around the joint; other signs and symptoms include:

  • Pain, swelling, or tenderness in the joint
  • Stiffness or aching in the joint
  • A crunching, clicking or snapping sound known as crepitus when moving the joint
  • Locking or catching feeling in the joint
  • Decreased range of motion
  • Pain while doing routine activities
  • Pain with strenuous exercise

How is Osteoarthritis Treated?

There is no cure for osteoarthritis, but there are several treatment options that you can follow to help manage your pain, improve your quality of life, and delay progression to later stages. Here we’ll explore the most common osteoarthritis treatment options, ranging from conservative to invasive.

Self Care and Lifestyle Modification

Making small changes to your daily routine can reduce the stress on your affected joint and have a significant impact on your pain levels and functionality:

  • Switch to low-impact activities
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Minimize activities that put stress on your joint
  • Strengthen the muscles surrounding the affected joint
  • Increase flexibility and range of motion with an exercise routine prescribed by a physiotherapist
  • Apply cold therapy to relieve pain and reduce inflammation

Assistive Devices for Osteoarthritis

Depending on the type of osteoarthritis you have, an assistive device can be used to reduce the pressure and stress on the affected joint. A doctor, physiotherapist or occupational therapist can recommend which device is best for you and help fit it too. Common assistive devices include:

  • Custom bracing to support and relieve pressure on the joint
  • Splinting to support the joints, especially in the hands
  • A cane or walker to reduce stress on the knees, hips, and ankles

Medication for Osteoarthritis

Pain management can be a necessary part of managing osteoarthritis. Depending on the severity and type of osteoarthritis, oral medications, topical creams, and even injections can all be used to manage symptoms:

  • Over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen and acetaminophen can be used to reduce pain and inflammation
  • Topical medications, including creams, sprays, gels and patches can be applied directly to the skin where the pain is. Those with counterirritants such as eucalyptus can be bought over-the-counter, whereas others containing non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may require a prescription from your doctor
  • Steroid injections may be prescribed and administered by your doctor to reduce swelling and pain in the affected joint

Physiotherapy for Osteoarthritis

A natural, drug-free noninvasive means of treating osteoarthritis, physiotherapy prescribed exercises have proven effective in managing osteoarthritis pain at all stages. Physiotherapy focuses on improving your aerobic conditioning while also strengthening the muscles that support the affected joint. Depending on the type of osteoarthritis and the severity, physiotherapy may include the following treatments:

    • Stability and endurance exercises
    • Stretching, strengthening, and range of motion exercises
    • Activity modification to avoid injury
    • Pain control modalities or techniques including:
      • Interferential current therapy (IFC)
      • Therapeutic ultrasound
      • Heat and ice therapy
      • Acupuncture
      • Massage therapy

pt Health is the exclusive physiotherapy partner of the Arthritis Society. Learn More about our specialized arthritis and osteoarthritis treatment program.

Surgery for Osteoarthritis

Surgery is the most invasive way to treat osteoarthritis and should be considered as a last resort after trying other more conservative treatments. As with any surgical procedure, there will be a period of recovery during which a physiotherapist can work with you to help regain strength and restore range of motion to your affected joint. Types of osteoarthritis surgeries include:

  • Cartilage grating
  • Joint resurfacing surgery
  • Total joint replacement surgery (arthroplasty)
  • Joint immobilization by fuzing surrounding joints together (arthrodesis)

Can Osteoarthritis go Away on its own?

No, as osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease, if left untreated it will continue to progress to later stages. While there is no cure for osteoarthritis, it can be managed effectively with physiotherapy and lifestyle changes.

Can you Prevent Osteoarthritis?

Yes, there are known risk factors for developing osteoarthritis and reducing or eliminating them can significantly lower your risk of developing some forms of osteoarthritis. Risk factors include:

  • Gender
  • Being overweight
  • Repetitive strain
  • A genetic predisposition
  • Previous injury to the joint

If you have these osteoarthritis risk factors, you can take steps to help reduce your chances of developing osteoarthritis including:

  • Improve your posture
  • Exercise regularly
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Positive lifestyle and activity changes

Learn more about treatment and preventative care options for osteoarthritis here.