About 27 million Americans have osteoarthritis (OA), a chronic condition that causes joint cartilage to break down and wear away resulting in decreased mobility, pain and stiffness.  Cartilage is a slippery tissue that prevents friction between the ends of bones that comprise joints. In OA, cartilage begins to break down and become rough, increasing friction and resulting in pain and inflammation. Eventually, the cartilage may wear away completely, leaving bones to rub against each other. OA can occur in any joint, but most commonly affects the knees, hips, hands and spine. The disease becomes worse over time, and to date, there is no cure.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?
Osteoarthritis tends to develop slowly, beginning as stiffness or mild pain in the joint, especially after overuse or prolonged inactivity. At the very start of the disease, stiffness and discomfort usually resolve once the joint is used. But over time, these symptoms worsen and the joint may become swollen and inflamed. Pain can also increase in the evening after the day’s activities have taken their toll on joints that are already compromised.
In addition to joint stiffness and pain, other symptoms associated with OA include joint tenderness, loss of flexibility in the joint and a grating or grinding sensation in the joint during movement. Eventually, repeated wear and tear can cause bone spur formation, which can result in additional discomfort.
Some people experience only the earlier, milder signs of OA, while others go on to develop severe symptoms that can become debilitating, making it difficult to complete everyday tasks like walking, climbing stairs or even sleeping comfortably. :
Since there is no cure for osteoarthritis, management is aimed at relieving symptoms through medication, physical therapy, lifestyle changes and, when necessary, surgery.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are most commonly used to help relieve both pain and inflammation. Over-the-counter products are the first line of defense, although stronger NSAIDs are available by prescription. Long-term use of NSAIDs can cause upset stomach, liver and kidney damage, cardiovascular problems or bleeding problems. Topical NSAIDs may also be used and may cause fewer side effects.
When NSAIDs don’t provide enough relief, joint injections may help, using either corticosteroids to relieve inflammation or lubricating solutions designed to facilitate pain-free movement may help.
Both physical and occupational therapies can help maintain strength, flexibility and mobility while teaching you ways to perform everyday tasks that don’t exacerbate pain or inflammation. An occupational therapist may also be able to recommend assistive or adaptive devices to make tasks more comfortable, or show you how to use self-massage or heat and cold therapies to relieve symptoms.
Lifestyle changes, including losing weight, adopting a healthy diet and getting regular exercise, can help relieve physical symptoms as well as stress, anxiety and depression. Many patients find it helpful to join a chronic pain support group.