Is Osteoarthritis An Old Age Ailment?
Osteoarthritis is a classic example of age-related ailment. However, though old age is considered to be the greatest risk factor for osteoarthritis (OA), all old people don’t suffer from OA. As such OA can occur at any age. However, people under 40 years of age are rarely caught by this disease. Age-related changes in musculoskeletal system increase susceptibility to OA, but the joints affected and the intensity of disease are more closely associated with other risk factors like obesity, joint injury, anatomical factors and genetics. These factors affect the joint mechanics. If you understand these changes in joints brought about by aging, it is likely that you will understand how to slow down or halt the progression of disease. But let us first understand what is osteoarthritis.
What is Osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis is described as a chronic degenerative disorder and many people think wrongly that it is an unavoidable outcome of old age. It is world’s commonest joint disorder and one of the commonest sources of pain and disability in elderly population. While there is a considerable difference of opinions about definition of OA, one thing is commonly agreed that age is the solitary greatest risk factor for development of this disease. OA is characterized by degeneration of articular cartilage, which is commonly known as ‘wear and tear’. However, unlike an eraser which goes on diminishing after each action of erasing, an OA-affected joint does contain living cells which respond to mechanical stimuli and function to keep up joint homeostasis. Aging of the joints increase the likelihood of OA, but doesn’t cause OA by itself. For the occurrence of OA, changes outside and inside the joints, along with other risk factors, are responsible. Breaking down of cartilage, results in pain, swelling and distortion. These changes normally occur slowly over years, however there may be exceptions.
Types of Osteoarthritis
There are two main types of OA, primary and secondary. Primary OA is more generalized which affects thumbs, fingers, knees, spine and hips, while secondary OA occurs upon an injury or inflammation in the joint.
Primary OA is commoner in women than in men and often occurs soon after menopause. Most people with primary OA have other family members with this disease. The disease is usually manifested by pain and swelling of finger joints, thumb base and hips or knees. Secondary OA occurs in a joint which was earlier suffered an injury or trauma or damage by some other cause like rheumatoid arthritis or an infection.
Who Catches OA?
Though most elderly persons over 60 years of age catch osteoarthritis, symptoms are not seen in most of them. Women are thrice susceptible than men to primary OA. As age is a major risk factor, people are more likely to catch OA upon growing older.
Other Risk Factors
Many other risk factors are present for OA. Some of them are:
Heredity – People who have a family history of OA are more likely to develop the disease.
Bone Deformities – People born with bone or cartilage deformities are at greater risk to OA.
Lifestyle – Sedentary lifestyle is also a major risk factor for OA. Those with deskbound jobs, for example, are more at risk for OA because there joints have less mobility, than those who have mobile jobs.
Obesity – More weight on the joints also make them prone to OA. If BMI (Body-Mass Index) is more than 25, there is more strain on weight-bearing joints like knees or hips, which may fall prey to OA.
Neuromuscular Disorders – Neuromuscular disorders put extra stress on the joints which may make them vulnerable to OA.
Osteoarthritis is different than other types of arthritis in that its pain develops gradually over several months or years and increases upon activities that put a lot of stress on joints, like running or prolonged walks. Morning stiffness is not so common. Pain and swelling in joints increase gradually over time. Pain is because of the pieces of broken cartilage floating in the synovial fluid and direct rubbing of bones on each other without the cushion of cartilage between them. Sometimes, particularly in advanced stages, a grinding or crunching sensation is experienced in the affected joints. Doctors often diagnose OA upon hearing about the symptoms and examining the joints, though sometimes X-rays to rule out other possibilities and MRIs in case of severe situations like cartilage rupture are required. There is no fever, weight loss or very heated and red joints in OA. If these symptoms occur, there is a possibility of some other type of arthritis.
Unfortunately osteoarthritis is incurable. Its management is usually done with a combination of several treatments like:
- Supplements (aka nutraceuticals)
- Weight loss
- Hot and cold compresses
- Supportive tools like crutches, braces, canes or shoe inserts
Surgery is only done if these methods are not sufficient to control the pain and swelling and if the disease interferes with normal activities. However, surgery cannot return the normal state of joints.
Best Cure is Prevention
As the disease is incurable it is better to try to prevent it. And to prevent, you will have to prevent unnecessary stress on the joints. You should keep your weight under control, with exercising and proper food habits. Live an active life. Also, avoid injuries to joints. While working and exercising, learn to keep proper postures and if a joint starts paining, give it a rest immediately. Discuss with your doctor to minimize the risk to joints.