Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis in the UK. It is a condition characterised by pain and stiffness in the joints, and it is caused by damage that the body is unable to repair. Joints that have been damaged by injuries, general wear and tear, or other medical conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, can lose their protective cartilage or develop bony growths that stop the joint functioning properly. Since this damage often occurs over time, osteoarthritis is more common in people over the age of 45, but it can affect younger people too, particularly if a joint has been injured in the past.
The main symptoms of osteoarthritis are joint stiffness and pain, but the way that different joints and people are affected can vary. Osteoarthritis can affect almost any kind of joint, but it is most common in the knees and hips, or in the small joints in the hand. Sometimes the symptoms only appear occasionally, often in response to changes in activity levels, but they can be continuous. The severity of the symptoms can also vary, from mild tenderness to severe pain, although it tends to get worse when the joint is being used.
In addition to pain and stiffness, there may also be a grating sensation or crackling noise as the joints move. The affected joints could also look larger than normal, feel weaker or be more difficult to move through their normal range. The symptoms are often serious enough to interfere with everyday activities, particularly when the joints being affected are in the hands.
If you have been experiencing persistent pain and stiffness in your joints, it is a good idea to make an appointment with your doctor to discuss these symptoms. You may then be referred on to talk to a rheumatologist if osteoarthritis is suspected.
Both your GP and rheumatologist will want to ask you about your symptoms and medical history, and to conduct a physical examination of your joints in order to confirm the diagnosis and check how severely the affected joints have been damaged. Further tests may not be needed, unless the doctor wants to rule out another condition or check how severely your joints have been damaged.
Osteoarthritis cannot be completely cured, but it can be managed. With proper care, the symptoms may be relieved and further damage to the joints can be prevented. For a mild case, it may be enough to manage the condition with lifestyle changes to reduce the strain placed on the affected joints. Maintaining a healthy weight and taking regular exercise under your doctor's direction can help, as can using special footwear or devices around the home to make everyday tasks easier. When the symptoms are more severe, medication to relieve the pain, and a more carefully structured exercise plan may be needed.
A physiotherapist may be called in to help with this. Sometimes, surgery may be recommended to repair or replace a particularly badly damaged joint. In any case, a rheumatologist will need to keep a close eye on the condition of the joints and conduct regular reviews to check how well the treatment is working.