Osteoarthritis is a condition that can cause your joints to become stiff and painful. Your knees, hips and the small joints in your hands are most commonly affected. It’s the most common form of arthritis.
The condition is thought to develop when your joints get damaged. As your joint tries to repair itself, changes can take place inside the joint. These changes can then lead to the development of pain and stiffness.
There are two different types of osteoarthritis.
- In primary osteoarthritis, there’s no known underlying disease or injury. It tends to come on gradually and affect older people.
- Secondary osteoarthritis is linked to a previous injury or another medical condition. It’s more likely to affect younger people.
Osteoarthritis can affect people in different ways, and can affect one joint differently to another. It can sometimes get worse over time, but this isn’t usually the case. It might stay the same for years, or the pain and stiffness may even improve with time.
Causes of osteoarthritis
It’s not clear exactly what makes someone develop osteoarthritis. It’s thought to be down to several different things. However, there are certain factors that are known to increase your risk of developing the condition. You’re more likely to develop osteoarthritis if:
- you’re over 45 – the risk increases the older you get
- you’re a woman – although it affects men too, it’s more common in women
- you’re obese – the extra weight puts more strain on your joints, and chemicals released by fat cells have also been linked to osteoarthritis
- you have a family history of osteoarthritis
- you’ve previously had an injury to your joint
- you have (or used to have) a job that involves a lot of manual work, or a hobby that involves a lot of stress on your joints, such as playing football
- you have another condition affecting the movement or alignment of your joints – this might mean you put more stress on them
Symptoms of osteoarthritis
The main symptoms of osteoarthritis are pain and stiffness of the affected joint. You might find you can’t use the joint or move it as well as before. Sometimes the pain can spread, or you may feel it in a different area of your body to the joint that’s affected. For instance, if you have osteoarthritis in your hip, you might feel pain in your groin, thigh, knee or ankle.
You’ll usually only feel pain when you use your joint, and it will tend to feel better when you rest. But if your arthritis is severe, you may be in pain when you’re resting too. Your joint may feel stiff first thing in the morning, or after resting, but this usually wears off quickly.
Sometimes you may notice swelling around the affected joint, and a crunching and grinding feeling or noise when you move it.
These symptoms can sometimes be due to other problems, but if you have any of them, contact your physiotherapist for advice.
Your physiotherapist will talk to you about several things you can do to reduce the pain and stiffness in your joints, and make day-to-day life easier. Some of the main ones are listed below.
- Exercising regularly can help to improve your symptoms and build up muscle strength. See the section below for more on exercising with osteoarthritis.
- If you’re overweight or obese, aim to reduce your weight by making changes to your diet and activity levels. Losing even a little weight can reduce the stress on your joints, improving your symptoms.
- If you have osteoarthritis in your knee, wearing shoes with a soft, thick, cushioned sole or using an insole will help to reduce any jarring.
- Try using a heat pad or an ice pack to help relieve pain. Don’t put either of these directly on to your skin as they may damage it or even give you a burn. Wrap them in a towel first.
Exercise and osteoarthritis
Exercising regularly, as much as you’re able to, is one of the most beneficial things you can do. Exercise can help to keep your joints working well and reduce your pain. It will also help to build up your muscle strength and improve your fitness, and may help you to feel better too.
Sometimes, your physiotherapist may recommend a structured exercise programme you can join. Other times, they might just give you some advice about what to try. The important thing is to find something that you can stick with and enjoy.
Aim to do a variety of different types of exercise, including the following.
- Strengthening exercises – to help strengthen your muscles and support your joints.
- Aerobic exercises, that increase your heart rate and get you a bit out of breath. This is good for overall health and fitness, and to help lose or maintain your weight. You might find it best to do a low-impact aerobic exercise that doesn’t put too much strain on your joints. Examples include swimming, cycling or walking.
- Flexibility/stretching exercises – to help maintain range of movement of your joints.
Build up the amount of exercise you do gradually. You might want to consider seeing a physiotherapist, who can help to create an individual exercise programme that works for you.
Treatment for osteoarthritis
As well as the self-help measures above, there are various treatment options for managing osteoarthritis that your physiotherapist will discuss with you.
Your physiotherapist may refer you to other health professionals, who can give you more practical advice and recommend various aids and devices that can help. These may include the following.
- A physiotherapist can advise you on the best types of exercise to do to keep movement and muscle strength around the affected joints. They can also assess whether braces, splints and supports would be useful.
- An occupational therapist can give you practical ways to help you manage with everyday tasks. This may include advising you on changes you can make to your car, home or workplace to ease any stress on your joints.
- A podiatrist can give you advice on the best footwear to use, and whether insoles would help.
Think about whether it would help to rearrange any rooms in your house or make any adaptations. For example, if you have hip or knee arthritis, you may want to install stair rails or grab rails in your bathroom. Raised toilet seats and a bath board/seat may also be helpful. If your hands are affected, you may find gadgets and aids, such as tap turners, kitchen utensils with padded handles and automatic can-openers helpful.
An occupational therapist can give you more advice. You may be eligible for some help towards the cost of any aids or adaptations you need in your home. Contact your local authority for a free assessment.
If you’re in work, ask if your employer has an occupational health department. They’ll be able to help you make adjustments to your way of working, or to your working environment to help you.