According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), approximately 27 million Americans aged 25 and older suffer from osteoarthritis. Though it can affect anyone, those who overwork their joints and have experienced previous joint injury are at an increased risk. The pain and inflammation can interfere with your day-to-day activities and bring even the most seasoned athlete to a screeching halt in their activity. Our knees are usually the first joints to show their age through regular wear and tear, but add to that years of high-impact exercise like running and skiing and you’re on the fast track to having to sacrifice the activities you love.
What Is Osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis (OA) is a common form of arthritis that results in the breakdown of the joint’s cartilage. Cartilage acts as a cushion on the ends of the joints and helps them to move more easily. When the cartilage breaks down, you’re left with bone rubbing against bone when you move the joint, which can lead to damage to the joint itself. This is what results in the pain, stiffness, and interference with joint movement that is characteristic of OA.
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Though the cartilage in the joints breaks down on its own from wear and tear over the years, there are certain risk factors that increase a person’s chances of ending up with OA. The following are risk factors for OA of the knee as outlined by Arthritis Research UK:
- your age; being over the age of 40
- excess weight
- previous injury to a joint
- being a woman
- hereditary factors
- other conditions, such as gout and rheumatoid arthritis
Common Signs and Symptoms
Osteoarthritis commonly affects the weight-bearing joints, with the knee often being the first joint to trouble athletes and people who engage in high-impact exercise. The most common signs and symptoms of OA include:
- joint pain after overuse or inactivity
- joint stiffness that gets better when you start to move again after a period of inactivity
- morning joint stiffness lasting for a short period of time
The pain and stiffness from OA of the knee can lead to inactivity that causes the muscles in the leg to deteriorate, leading to a vicious circle of even more pain and inactivity. It can also cause a person to favor the other leg to offset their discomfort, which can lead to issues with the other knee.
Managing Osteoarthritis Knee Pain
There are several ways to treat and manage OA knee pain, though which will work best depends on the severity of the damage to the knee joint. NIAMS recommends a combination of the following to manage OA:
- Over-the-counter and prescription pain medication can offer temporary relief from pain and inflammation to help you stay active.
- Exercise helps improve muscle strength, blood circulation and reduce pain.
- Heat can be applied using warm towels or hot water bottles to improve circulation and soothe pain.
- Applying cold using ice packs or a frozen bag of vegetables can help reduce inflammation.
- Avoiding long periods of rest will keep joints from stiffening.
- Scheduled rest is necessary to avoid overworking the damaged joint.
- Physical therapy is performed by professionals who work with you to improve joint function.
- Occupational therapy teaches you ways to lessen your pain by protecting the joints and also how to perform your activities in a way that minimizes discomfort.
- Losing excess weight reduces stress on the joints; according to a study published in a 2005 edition of the journal Arthritis & Rheumatism by the American College of Rheumatology, each pound lost results in the equivalent of 4 pounds of stress off the knee.
Using a combination of these can help keep your OA knee pain under control so that you can continue with your daily activities as well as the exercise and physical activities that you enjoy. Speak to your doctor or a sports medicine expert to determine the best course of treatment for your individual needs.