Oh curse the human condition and all the aches and pains that come along with it! This month we are made aware of a chronic condition called osteoarthritis. Thousands of South Africans suffer from osteoarthritis. This type of arthritis occurs when the flexible tissue at the ends of bones wears down. Osteoarthritis, also known as OA, is a degenerative form of arthritis that can’t be cured but can certainly be managed. Being informed about what OA is, its causes, treatment and helpful lifestyle options will be a good start to understanding and managing the disease.

Some interesting facts about osteoarthritis:
  • Women are more likely to suffer from OA than men, the reason for this is not yet known.
  • Issues such as age, bone deformities, genetics, injuries and weight can increase the risk of suffering from OA.
  • Although OA is not something that can be ‘fixed’, there are treatments, lifestyle changes and healthy habits that can help lessen the pain.
  • OA occurs when the protective tissue at the ends of bones (the cartilage) gradually wears down over time.
  • The most common symptoms include joint pains in the hands, neck, lower back, knees or hips.
  • OA has no specific cause and usually happens gradually over time.
What is Osteoarthritis (OA)?

Your body contains cartilage in between your bones and joints, this cartilage allows bones to glide over each other. When someone has OA the cartilage layer starts to break down and this causes bones to grind against each other causing pain. The tissue surrounding the joints that are affected eventually also becomes abnormal and outgrowths of bone form around the joint as the body attempts to heal itself. Fragments of this bone can break off and irritate the joints. The joints lose their natural lubrication and they become stiffer.  The result is reduced motion and pain.

What causes OA?

It has no specific cause and usually happens gradually over time. Risk factors that might lead to the development of OA include being overweight, ageing, joint injuries, joints that are not properly formed, a genetic defect in joint cartilage and stress on joints, something that can be the result of a specific job (e.g. one that entails repetitive movements that injure your joints over time) and playing certain sports.

What is the difference between OA and other forms of arthritis, e.g. rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and gout?
The main differences are seen in the distribution of the joints affected and the kind of pain you experience. In osteoarthritis the pain is typically made worse by activity, while the pain of rheumatoid arthritis is relieved by activity. In OA, the hands are affected but usually the wrist and elbows are not. With RA the joints affected are often more widespread and the associated morning stiffness is often more prolonged.
What are the warning signs for OA?

It can occur in any joint and usually gradually increases over time. Stiff and painful joints are the most common symptoms, but other warning signs to look out for are:

  • Pain that’s worse after activity or toward the end of the day .
  • Limited range of motion or stiffness that goes away after movement.
  • Swelling or tenderness in one or more joints.
  • A ‘crunchy’ feeling or the sound of bone rubbing on bone.
What are the treatment options?

Although there is no cure for OA, medical treatment should help ease the symptoms. There are also things you can do to help relieve the pain and improve joint function and in this way manage the disease. Things to consider include:

  • Making sure your back is supported and in a proper position when you sit or sleep by adjusting furniture (just a few basic things like raising a chair to help you sit down and get up easier).
  • Avoiding frequent repeat movements of the affected joint.
  • Daily exercise.
  • Losing weight if you are overweight.

The South African National Osteoporosis Foundation offers a free online risk assessment on their website.

A healthy diet can alleviate and prevent many ailments. Read our blog on prunes and the good they can do for bone health.