Osteoarthritis

Click here for a print friendly version

This sheet has been written for people affected by osteoarthritis. It provides general information to help you understand how osteoarthritis affects you and what you can do to manage it. It also tells you where to find further information and advice.

Arthritis & Osteoporosis NSW can help improve your quality of life. Click here to find out more about our membership program.

What is osteoarthritis (OA)?
Osteoarthritis (OA) is a condition that affects the whole joint including bone, cartilage, ligaments and muscles. In later stages it is characterized by loss of the cartilage but there are many causes. OA mainly affects people at older ages, but it can develop in younger people. Osteoarthritis is different to osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a condition where the bones become fragile and brittle, causing them to break more easily.

What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of OA vary from person to person. Your symptoms will also depend on which joints are affected. OA tends to come on slowly, over months or even years. The most common symptoms are pain and stiffness of the joints. These feelings are usually worst with activity initially but can be more constant in later disease. These symptoms may affect your ability to do normal daily activities, such as walking, climbing stairs and opening jars.

What causes it?
OA is not fully understood. Research shows there are some things that may put you at more risk of developing OA in certain joints, such as:

•knees being overweight, having a previous knee injury, jobs involving kneeling, climbing and squatting
•hips: being overweight, having a previous hip injury, jobs involving lifting heavy loads (including farming)
•hands: having a history of OA in the family.

How is it diagnosed?
Your doctor will diagnose OA from your symptoms and a physical examination. An x-ray may show the narrowing and changes in the shape of your joint. However x-rays do not diagnose how much trouble you will have. An x-ray that shows joint damage does not always mean you will have a lot of pain or problems.

On the other hand your joint may be very painful despite x-rays being normal. Blood tests are only helpful to rule out other types of arthritis.

What will happen to me?
The impact of OA on your normal activities and lifestyle depends on which joints are affected. However the outlook for most people with OA is very positive. For many people OA will be mild and not cause major problems. OA of the hip and knee can cause servere disability and surgery to replace joints is often very effective but only indicated after failure of less invasive approaches such as weight loss and exercise.

Is there a cure for OA?
Currently there is no cure for OA. While there are treatments that can effectively control symptoms, you should be wary of products or therapies that claim to cure OA.

What treatments are there for OA?
Treatments for OA vary depending on which joints are affected and the severity of your condition. There is no way of predicting exactly which treatment will work best for you. Each treatment has its own benefits and risks. Your doctor may need to trial several different treatments before finding the one that is right for you.

In general terms, treatment usually includes:

• an exercise program designed to suit your needs
• a weight loss program, if you are overweight
• simple pain relief, using medicines such as paracetamol
• non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
• joint replacement surgery, if your symptoms are no longer controlled with other therapies.

Your local Arthritis Office has information sheets on physical activity, healthy eating, medicines and surgery.

What can I do?
See your doctor for treatment and advice. Your doctor will help you get the right treatment to manage your symptoms. See the Working with your healthcare team information sheet.

Learn about OA and play an active role in your treatment. Not all information you read or hear about is trustworthy so always talk to your doctor or healthcare team about treatments you are thinking about trying. Reliable sources of further information are also listed in the section below. Self management courses aim to help you develop skills to be actively involved in your healthcare. Contact your local Arthritis Office for details of these courses.

Learn ways to manage pain. See the Dealing with Pain information sheet.

Stay active. Exercise is strongly recommended for people with OA. It keeps your joints and muscles healthy and flexible and prevents other health problems. You may find it useful to see a physiotherapist or other health professional for advice. See the Physical activity and Working with your healthcare team information sheets.

Have a healthy diet. There is no diet that will cure OA but a diet aimed at maintaining an ideal body weight is recommended. See the Healthy Eating information sheet.

Balance your life. Learn about gadgets that make daily tasks easier and how to balance rest and activity. See the Saving energy information sheet.

Acknowledge your feelings and seek support. As there is currently no cure for OA, it is natural to feel scared, frustrated, sad and sometimes angry. Be aware of these feelings and get help if they start affecting your daily life. See the Arthritis and emotions information sheet.

Contact your local arthritis office for more information sheets on arthritis.

Learn about OA and your treatment options. There are many things you can do to live well with OA.

For more information:
Books
Good living with osteoarthritis 2006, Arthritis Foundation of America, Atlanta, GA.
Katzenstein, Larry 2005,  Taking charge of arthritis. A practical guide to managing your health and wellbeing, Readers Digest Australia, Ultimo, NSW.
Bird, Howard et al 2006, Arthritis: Improve your health, ease pain and live life to the full, Dorling Kindersley, London.
Lorig, Kate Fries, James 2006, The arthritis helpbook: A tested self management program for coping with arthritis and fibromyalgia, Da Capo Lifelong, Cambridge, MA.

Websites
The Arthritis Research Campaign www.arc.org.uk
American College of Rheumatology www.rheumatology.org
Arthritis Foundation (US) www.arthritis.org

Arthritis Australia in partnership with Bupa Health Foundation* has developed a new interactive website – MyJointPain.org.au -  to help those with joint pain or osteoarthritis better manage their symptoms.