Joint cartilage allows your joints to move freely and absorb impact. As you get older, the cartilage in your joints can start to become worn, especially in your knees, hips, and hands. Losing this cartilage makes it much harder for your joints to handle everyday movements and tasks.
After much of the cartilage has worn away, you may start to feel pain. Moving your joints may be more difficult. The pain can also mean that the space between the bones of the joint has narrowed enough to change the joint’s range of motion.
When joint space narrowing occurs, the cartilage no longer keeps the bones a normal distance apart. This can be painful as the bones rub or put too much pressure on each other.
Joint space narrowing can also be a result of conditions such as osteoarthritis (OA) or rheumatoid arthritis (RA). If you feel abnormal pain in your joints, your doctor may want to order X-rays or other imaging tests.
These will help the doctor look for any narrowing in the painful joint. Then, based on your results, your doctor may suggest a treatment plan or lifestyle changes to address the cause and reduce the pain.
Your doctor may order one or more tests to see detailed images of where joint space narrowing or damage has happened.
During an X-ray, your radiologic technologist uses an X-ray machine to create black and white images of your bones. The images can help them see signs of joint damage or narrowing in more detail.
Taking X-rays only takes a few minutes and won’t require you to undress unless your healthcare provider needs to see an area under your clothes. Your radiologic technologist will give you a covering of some sort to protect you from radiation, too.
X-ray images are usually ready in a few minutes. This makes it one of the most commonly used tests for examining your bones for joint space narrowing.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
During an MRI, your radiologic technologist will place you inside a large machine that uses radio waves to create images of the inside of your body. This test can produce highly detailed images.
Let your doctor know if you are claustrophobic. The inside of the machine is very small, so you may opt for a different type of imaging test. Your doctor may also prescribe a mild sedative to help manage symptoms of claustrophobia.
Your radiologic technologist will likely ask you to remove your clothing and any accessories for best imaging results. You’ll also need to remain still during the test.
MRI results are usually ready within an hour.
During an ultrasound, your radiologic technologist will apply a special gel to the joint area that they want to examine. Then they’ll use a device called a transducer to send sound waves into your body. These sound waves bounce off the structures in your body, which helps generate images.
This test is quick and painless, usually less than 30 minutes. You may only be a little uncomfortable as your technologist moves the transducer around the affected joint area.
Ultrasound images are viewed in real time. Your technologist can see your bones immediately as they move the transducer around on your skin. Once your results are ready, your doctor will review the images.
If your doctor thinks you may have a condition causing your joint space narrowing, they might also recommend a physical examination.
This may require you to undress and cause you some mild discomfort as your doctor touches, or palpates, the joints and sees how flexible they are. Your doctor will also ask about the level of pain or discomfort you feel when you move your joints.
Your doctor may show you your X-rays or other imaging results. They’ll walk you through the process of examining your bones for abnormalities.
If your doctor thinks you have a condition causing your joint space narrowing, they’ll look for abnormally low levels of joint cartilage, which is the most visible symptom of joint space narrowing.
They may look for osteophytes, also knowns as bone spurs, in your joints. Osteophytes usually appear as a result of losing your cartilage. They may look for subchondral cysts as well. These are sacs filled with fluid or a gel-like substance made of joint material.
The doctor may also look for subchondral sclerosis, which is hardened tissue in the bone around your cartilage.
If your doctor believes you have RA, they may ask you to take a blood test. This will help them look for more evidence of inflammation in your body.
Blood tests require blood to be drawn with a needle. Let your phlebotomist know if you’re uncomfortable with needles or the sight of blood.
Joint space narrowing may occur from overuse of your joints. It can also occur as you get older. Other risk factors, such as obesity and muscle weakness, can contribute to joint space narrowing.
Joint space narrowing can also be a sign of OA. OA is a type of arthritis that usually affects your knees or finger joints. According to the Arthritis Foundation, around 80 percent of adults age 65 or older in high-income countries have some signs of OA.
The condition can also indicate RA. This is a type of arthritis that happens when your immune system attacks your body tissues and causes chronic inflammation.
Your treatment depends on the cause of your joint space narrowing.
If you’re diagnosed with OA, your doctor may prescribe medications such as acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve) to manage your joint pain.
Low-impact exercise, such as yoga, may also help keep your joints flexible despite the discomfort of the narrowing joint. Your doctor may also suggest cortisone or lubrication injections to numb the pain or cushion the joint area.
If your doctor diagnoses you with RA, they may recommend medications known as disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDS). These include methotrexate, adalimumab (Humira), or a combination of the two.
These drugs can allow you to keep working or taking part in regular physical activity without causing more narrowing in your joints. Your doctor may also prescribe NSAIDs to keep the pain under control.
In some cases, you may need to undergo joint replacement surgery. In this procedure, your orthopedic surgeon removes the affected parts of your joint and replaces them with metal, ceramic, or plastic prosthetics.
As with any surgery, joint replacement surgery carries some risks that can increase as you age. Talk to your doctor about the benefits and risks.
A joint replacement can have a significant impact on your lifestyle, but it can also help you reverse or recover from cartilage loss or joint damage.
Arthritis and other joint-related conditions are common. Joint space narrowing can be treated in many ways that will help preserve your quality of life. Work with your doctor to find a treatment plan that works best for you.