What Is Osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis (or OA, for short) is a chronic condition that affects various joints of the body. In OA, the cartilage that covers the ends of bones breaks down over time, leading to direct contact of the adjacent bones. This may cause pain, swelling, and loss of motion over time. Joints that are commonly affected include the load bearing joints of the lower body such as the hips, knees and ankles, the hands, and spine. The structural changes that characterize knee OA are not reversible.
How Do I Know If I Have Osteoarthritis?
Whilst the severity of the OA itself (that is, the condition of the knee) can be evaluated by x-ray, it is not necessary for its diagnosis. There are several things that a physiotherapist may pick out that will point towards a diagnosis of OA. This may include:
- Pain during or after movement
- Tenderness when applying pressure around the affected joint
- Swelling around the affected joint
- Loss of motion
- Stiffness, especially first thing in the morning or after periods of rest
- Grinding sensation during movements
In addition to these symptoms, other factors such as older age, being female, carrying extra body weight, a previous history of injury affecting the joint, genetics, and certain medical conditions (e.g., diabetes), may increase the suspicion of a diagnosis of OA.
What Can I Do About My Osteoarthritis?
People diagnosed with OA often believe that joint replacement surgery is the only way to “treat” it. Intuitively, this might make sense as the changes in OA are not reversible,
There’s good news!
Research has shown that the relationship between what your knee joint looks like on imaging doesn’t always add up to how you function in reality – it’s possible for people who have “severe” OA on imaging to still function well, and people who have “minor” OA to have high disability.
This is because there are many contributing factors to someone’s function other than the state of the joint itself. Things like muscle strength, physical fitness, emotional and mental well-being, and even social support can impact one’s quality of life with OA.
Non-operative treatment for knee OA includes physiotherapy, which has been shown to improve patients’ quality of life and functional ability. Physiotherapy for OA will typically include exercises to strengthen the muscles around the affected joint(s), improve the range of motion, and may even include balance exercises if joints of the lower limbs are affected as OA can increase the risk for falls.
If you have, or think you may have OA, it’s a good call to have a physiotherapy assessment or consult your GP to determine the best course of action!