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How to Prevent Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis (OA), sometimes called degenerative arthritis, is the most common type of arthritis. In OA, the cartilage that covers the bones in a joint thins and, in some cases, wears away entirely. This leaves bone rubbing against bone, which can cause inflammation. The inflammation causes swelling and pain, and eventually distorts the originally smooth surface of the joints. Bits of bone or cartilage can break off and float inside the joint space. This causes pain and interferes with the joint movement. Sometimes, bone spurs, called osteophytes, grow on the edges of the joint.

Can you prevent OA?

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! The less unnecessary stress you put on your joints, the less likely they are to wear out prematurely. Keep your weight under control. When working and exercising, try to use good posture, and if a joint starts to bother you, rest it immediately. Your health care provider may be able to offer suggestions to minimize your risk for joint injury.

The Arthritis Foundation makes the following recommendations to protect joints and prevent osteoarthritis:

  • Maintain your ideal body weight. Excess weight puts stress on your joints, especially your hips, knees, back, and feet.

  • Move. Exercise strengthens muscles around joints; this can help prevent wear and tear on cartilage in a joint.

  • Maintain good posture. Good posture protects your joints from excessive pressure, especially your neck, back, hips, and knees.

  • Do a variety of physical activity. Alternate periods of heavy activity with periods of rest. For example, if you do weight training one day, do aerobic exercise the next day. Repetitive stress on joints for long periods of time can cause the excessive wear and tear that can lead to osteoarthritis.

  • Pay attention to pain. If you have joint pain, don't ignore it. Pain after activity or exercise can be an indication you have overstressed your joints and that they need to rest.

  • Forget the weekend warrior. Start new activities slowly and safely until you know how your body will react to them. This will reduce the chance of injury.

  • Avoid injury to joints. Wear proper safety equipment. Don't leave helmets and wrist pads at home. Make sure your safety gear is comfortable and fits appropriately.

Making an accurate diagnosis

Symptoms of OA include stiffness in a joint after a period of immobility, swelling in a joint, and hearing noise or feeling a crunch when a joint moves.

It's important to see your doctor if you have joint pain, especially in your hip joints, knee joints, or fingers. Your doctor will evaluate the history of your pain and perform a physical examination to clearly diagnose arthritis and determine what type it is. X-rays may be taken to look for cartilage loss, bone damage, and bone spurs. If an X-ray does not show a cause for the pain, an MRI may be done to look for damage to other joint tissues, such as a ligaments. This is important because OA treatment differs from that for other forms of arthritis and joint injuries.

A number of other conditions can affect your joints, and only your health care provider can help you determine what type of arthritis you have. Once the diagnosis of OA is made, it is important to understand that there's no cure. With your doctor's help, you can effectively manage this chronic condition.

Managing osteoarthritis

The goals for treatment of OA are to decrease pain, improve joint function, and prevent further damage. Once the diagnosis of OA is made, your health care provider may suggest some of the following:

  • If you are overweight, lose weight. Excess weight stresses joints, tendons, ligaments, and muscles. It also increases the risk for heart disease and other problems.

  • Exercise to relieve or prevent pain. OA doesn't have to stop you from enjoying a walk through the park or performing daily activities, such as climbing the stairs or gardening. Exercise can treat, and may even help prevent, pain. Your doctor can review the exercises that are best for you.

  • Medication. Your health care provider may recommend that you take a daily dose of acetaminophen, aspirin, or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug; glucosamine; a glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate combination, or prescription medications to ease pain.

  • Home remedies. You should discuss with your doctor how you might use traditional self-care remedies, such as a moist heating pad, hot shower, and/or ice pack to relieve pain.

  • Joint replacement. This is done when the joint is no longer functional or when the pain is so great that you can no longer function. An increasing number of people are choosing this option, especially people in their late 60s and 70s. Currently, replacements are available for knees, hips, shoulders, and finger joints.