Prevention & Recovery

What is osteoarthritis?

Author: Canadian Living

Prevention & Recovery

What is osteoarthritis?

This story was originally titled "Just Been Diagnosed: Osteoarthritis" in the March 2011 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!

Osteoarthritis (OA), also known as degenerative joint disease, occurs when bone-cushioning cartilage, which acts as a shock absorber and allows joints to move smoothly, wears down. It's most common in hands, feet, knees, hips and the lower back.

How will osteoarthritis affect me?
You may feel stiff, less flexible and unable to move as much or for as long. Simple movements and activities once taken for granted – walking up stairs, getting in and out of bed, opening a jar – become more painful and difficult to perform.

How did I develop this condition?

"Although with aging there is some natural degeneration of the cartilage, there are some people who seem to be at a greater risk [for OA]," says Dr. Joanne Homik, chair of the Medical Advisory Committee of the Arthritis Society and rheumatologist at the University of Alberta. Contributing risk factors include regular physical labour, genetics, previous joint injuries and weight.

Is there anything I can do about it?

Although there's no known cure and the condition is irreversible, OA tends to progress slowly, says Dr. Cy Frank, former president of the Canadian Orthopaedic Association and a professor at the University of Calgary. You can manage the symptoms in the following ways.

• Keep physical stress to a minimum and alter exercise regimens that are causing pain and swelling. As a general rule, less impact is better.

• Use a warm heating pad or bath to relieve stiffness and muscle spasms, or a cold pack to reduce pain and swelling. Topical creams and gels may deliver short-term pain relief.

• Your doctor may recommend nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as acetylsalicylic acid and ibuprofen.

• Lose weight. Dropping 10 pounds can reduce the force on the knee by 30 to 60 pounds with each step.

• Look into orthotic devices such as a cane or a fitted brace, as well as assistive devices, such as a raised toilet seat in the bathroom or hand rails wherever support is needed.

Will I need surgery?
Surgery is a last resort, says Homik. The most common types of surgery include minor arthroscopy, where debris is cleaned out and the cartilage repaired, and major joint replacement.

Before recommending surgery, your doctor will likely explore prescription NSAIDs and painkillers, and complementary approaches such as acupuncture and massage. Your doctor may also refer you to a physiotherapist or occupational therapist for help with muscle strengthening, coordination and balance.

Do you have osteoarthritis?
You're not alone. According to the Arthritis Society, some three million Canadians have the disease. To find arthritis selfmanagement programs, call the Arthritis Society at 1-800-321-1433, or visit arthritis.ca.


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