Arthritis affects millions of people each day, and the most common type is osteoarthritis. Each joint in the body has a protective layer of cartilage that helps cushion some of the stress on the joints. Over time, this cartilage begins to wear down due to constant movement. Injury or repetitive stress to a joint and obesity also increase the risk. This degradation of cartilage and its resulting issues are osteoarthritis. Though the condition can affect any joint in the body, the most mobile joints are the most at risk. Osteoarthritis typically affects the hips, spine, hands, and knees.
One of the most common and prevalent symptoms of osteoarthritis is pain, which can manifest in a variety of ways. At first, most people feel a dull ache in the affected joints. Because osteoarthritis results from the wear and tear of joints, it is progressive. Over time, that dull ache may progress to severe pain that results in a loss of basic function. However, progression can take years or even decades and the rate is highly variable.
People with osteoarthritis also often experience stiffness and loss of flexibility. This stiffness is usually at its worst after waking up or after sitting for a prolonged period. In some cases, this symptom may be so severe that the joint requires manual stretching because it cannot stretch on its own. As osteoarthritis progresses, it is common for the stiffness to worsen. This may lead to a significant loss of mobility and function.
In addition to directly causing pain, osteoarthritis often causes the areas around the joints to swell and become stiff and tender. This may further restrict mobility as it becomes more painful to move throughout the day. If osteoarthritis is affecting the hands or fingers, holding tools can irritate the condition. In some cases, wrapping the handles of objects with cloth or tape can help alleviate some of the issues.
One of the more advanced symptoms of osteoarthritis is a grating sensation as the affected joints move. Though it may be present during the early stages of osteoarthritis, this issue is more common after several years of progression. Often, odd crackling or popping noises accompany the grating. Physicians refer to these sensations and sounds as crepitus. In people with osteoarthritis, crepitus is usually due to the ends of the bones within the joint rubbing against each other. However, small fractures can also cause the sound and sensations.
Osteoarthritis can lead to an increased risk of fractures. A combination of factors contributes to this, as most people with osteoarthritis are older and have several other issues that affect mobility and bone health. People with osteoarthritis have 30% more falls and are 20% more likely to fracture a bone during falls than individuals without the condition. Some osteoarthritis medications can affect balance, leading to more incidents. Additionally, some pain relief medications cause dizziness.
Osteoarthritis of the spine can be a severe condition even before it has time to progress. When it affects the spine, the condition can cause many symptoms, the mildest of which are tingling sensations, weakness, and numbness. These occur because the condition causes pressure on the nerves as they exit the spinal column. If the pressure is severe enough, it can lead to a loss of bladder and bowel control. Some people develop an inability to perform certain leg, hip, and foot movements.
Degenerating joints, such as those affected by osteoarthritis, often develop smooth, bony growths called osteophytes or bone spurs. Their very presence is enough to distinguish osteoarthritis from other types of arthritis. Osteophytes develop when the damaged cartilage begins to repair itself despite significant cartilage loss in the joint. The exact process of osteophyte growth and development remains unknown. Depending on their size, osteophytes may cause pain or loss of movement. They may also press down on nerves and interfere with various bodily functions.
Aside from bone spurs, the fingers are prone to two unique types of bony growths. Those that develop on the finger joints closest to the fingertips, are Heberden's nodes. Growths on the lower joints are Bouchard's nodes. As the nodes develop, pain typically lessens because much of the degeneration has already occurred. However, the growths tend to inhibit hand movements and function dramatically. Both types of nodes typically only appear in advanced cases of osteoarthritis.
Some physicians and medical experts believe that osteoarthritis may also play a role in the growth of bunions. As osteoarthritis in the toes worsens, it may lead to swelling or bone growths that cause the big toe to press against the other toes. As a result, bumps develop on the sides of the big toes. These bunions are abnormalities of the foot bones. Bunions can cause the toes to crowd together, leading to pain and trouble walking.
Because people with osteoarthritis typically lose their mobility as the condition worsens, their bodies change accordingly, often depending on their activity level prior to the condition. For active individuals, this may manifest as a significant loss of muscle tone, bulk, and strength. Other people may lose weight due to difficulty getting up to get food or holding kitchen utensils. Others may gain weight because they are less mobile.
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