Feeling like your legs are buckling when you stand and experiencing increased pain and stiffness throughout the day: These are signs of the degenerative joint disease osteoarthritis.
Somewhere between 20 and 27 million people in the United States have osteoarthritis. Symptoms may also include pain upon going to sleep, weakness, and grinding and popping sensations in the joints, says Kelly Weselman, MD, an Atlanta-based rheumatologist.
“A lot of people will complain their grip strength is less and they have trouble opening jars, especially when osteoarthritis affects the base of the thumb, which is common,” Weselman says.
Osteoarthritis results from wear and tear to the cartilage lining joints such as the hand, knee, and spine. This deterioration — and bone rubbing against bone — leads to reduced range of motion for the joint as well as pain and stiffness, she says.
Exactly how osteoarthritis affects a person depends on how severe the disease is and how much the person is able to help himself or herself, notes Jonathan Samuels, MD, a specialist in osteoarthritis at NYU Langone Medical Center. Some people can have trouble walking down the hall, getting out of the car, or using the stairs, and it can greatly impact their lifestyle. Others remain quite functional and still do all they want to do daily, Weselman says.
Although people with osteoarthritis can take steps to mitigate the pain — including taking oral pain medications (Tylenol, Aleve, etc.), cortisone, or hyaluronic acid injections — no treatments can modify or stop the progression of the disease, according to experts. Patients may benefit from lifestyle measures, like losing weight to reduce stress on joints.
Take the following quiz to learn more about how osteoarthritis develops and what you can do to feel better.
1. All of the following are good for people with osteoarthritis except:
A. Taking it easy
C. Using an elliptical machine
2. Which of the following may cause osteoarthritis?
C. Family history
D. Other diseases
E. All of the above
3. How much exercise should a person with osteoarthritis do per day?
A. 20 minutes
B. 30–40 minutes
C. One hour
4. If a patient is able to do a joint replacement as a last resort, the prognosis of osteoarthritis is good.
True or False
5. Losing weight will help those with osteoarthritis decrease their pain.
True or False
6. Assistive devices like a cane are helpful for those with osteoarthritis.
True or False
1. A. It is important for patients with osteoarthritis to exercise, Samuels says. The worst thing a person can do is limit his or her activity. Not moving can cause one’s joints to get stiffer, muscles to get weaker, and weight to increase, all putting even more stress on the joints, Weselman says.
People with osteoarthritis should focus on low-impact physical activities like swimming, walking, riding a stationary bike, or using an elliptical machine. The goal is to not tax the joints but still get a good cardiovascular workout and improve muscle strength, she explains.
If muscles are strong, they will support the skeleton. Also, moving joints regularly helps improve a person’s range of motion. A person with osteoarthritis should avoid high-impact activities like basketball and running, which tax the joints, she advises.
2. E. All of the above may lead to osteoarthritis, Samuels says. Obesity can contribute to the development and progression of knee osteoarthritis in part due to the increased pressure the extra weight places on the joint. In addition to the excess pressure, recent studies suggest that the adipose (connective) fat tissue produces chemical signals that interact with the joints and may lead to more arthritis, he says.
3. B. Of course the more exercise one gets, the better, but everyone should try to exercise for at least 30–40 minutes per day, Weselman says, since it’s important for muscle strength.
“Exercise is probably the single most important thing patients can do to help themselves with osteoarthritis,” Weselman says. And you don’t really start to lose fat until you get up to 40 minutes of exercise a day.
4. True. While a person will probably consider a joint replacement as a last-resort therapy, patients who opt to replace a joint can do very well, Samuels says.
5. True. “For people who are obese and have severe joint pain, weight loss is being shown now to have a significant impact on decreasing their joint pain,” says Samuels. Data show that even if you lose just a small amount of weight, you can feel better, Weselman says.
The worst thing a person with osteoarthritis can do is no exercise because then the joints get stiffer, the muscles get weaker, and weight goes up, all of which puts more stress on the joint, Weselman says.
6. True. Assistive devices can be very helpful for those with osteoarthritis because they can help “unload the joint.”
“If you walk with a cane in the left hand for right knee osteoarthritis, you take 50% of your weight off the joint,” Weselman says.
Want to learn more about osteoarthritis? Read “Osteoarthritis: Who Gets It?” “Osteoarthritis: How Is It Treated?” “Osteoarthritis: Top 10 Self-Management Tips,” and “How Our Understanding of Osteoarthritis Is Changing.”