A lifetime of walking, exercising, and moving can take a toll on your cartilage — the smooth, shiny, white connective tissue that covers the ends of bones.
The degeneration of this cartilage may lead to arthritis and result in chronic inflammation of your joints.
Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common form of arthritis. OA is also commonly referred to as degenerative joint disease.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),
Cartilage cushions the ends of your bones and allows them to move smoothly and easily against each other.
A membrane called the synovium surrounds your joints and produces a thick fluid that helps keep your cartilage healthy.
Your synovium can become inflamed and thickened as wear and tear on your cartilage occurs. This may lead to inflammation and cause extra fluid to build up within your joints, resulting in swelling.
The joints most commonly affected by OA are your:
As cartilage further deteriorates, the underlying bones may not have enough cushioning from your cartilage.
Once your bone surfaces come in direct contact with each other, there’s usually additional pain and inflammation that occurs in your joints and surrounding tissues.
As your bones continue to grind and rub against one another, they begin to grow osteophytes, or bone spurs, one of the most common findings in joints with OA.
The older you get, the more common it is to experience mild soreness or aching when you:
- climb stairs
Naturally, your body doesn’t recover as quickly as it did.
Also, cartilage naturally deteriorates with age, and stiffness, particularly after sitting or lying down for a long time, is one of the most common symptoms in people living with OA.
As your body’s natural shock absorbers wear out, your joints are less able to absorb the demands that our lives place on them.
Muscle tone and bone strength also diminish with age, further making physically demanding tasks more difficult and taxing on your body.
A common risk factor of developing OA is age. According to the CDC, by 2040 it’s estimated that
However, almost 50 percent of people over 65 years old have reported being told by a doctor that they have arthritis.
Other factors that increase a person’s chances of developing the condition include:
Being overweight may put additional stress on your:
This stress may especially affect your knees and hips, and it means you may be less likely to be physically active. Regular physical activity, such as a daily walk, can greatly reduce the likelihood of developing OA.
Genetics may make a person more likely to develop OA. If you have family members living with the condition, you may be at an increased risk for developing OA.
According to the CDC, most types of arthritis are more common in women, including osteoarthritis.
Certain occupations increase the risk of developing OA, such as:
People in these occupations use their bodies more vigorously as part of their jobs resulting in more wear and tear on their joints.
Younger, more active people can also develop OA. However, it’s often the result of a trauma, such as a sports injury or accident. A history of an injury or accident can increase the chance of developing OA later.
OA doesn’t have a cure. Instead, the goal of treatment is to manage pain and reduce any contributing factors that may make the symptoms of OA worse.
The first step in treating OA is to decrease pain. This is often done with a combination of:
- physical therapy
Treatment for OA is often tailored to a person’s lifestyle and the triggers that cause pain and soreness. A range of treatment options are available. These include:
Over-the-counter (OTC) medications may be what some people living with OA need to treat pain.
Examples include acetaminophen (Tylenol) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin).
Steroid injections can help reduce pain in affected joints. However, they shouldn’t be used repetitively because they can cause additional joint damage over time.
For people living with knee or hip OA, the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) and the Arthritis Foundation (AF) strongly recommend glucocorticoid injections in their joints. A glucocorticoid is a type of corticosteroid.
Glucocorticoid injections in your joints are only conditionally recommended for people living with hand OA, due to the lack of evidence regarding their effect on your hands.
FDA-approved glucocorticoids include:
- triamcinolone acetonide (Zilretta)
- methylprednisolone (Depo-Medrol)
- betamethasone (Celestone Soluspan)
Other types of injections
Studies once touted the benefits of hyaluronic acid (gel) injections in the knee joint and these injections are still used very routinely for OA of the knee. However, a 2019 research review questioned their effectiveness.
Hyaluronic acid injections are only FDA approved for use in your knee joint and aren’t typically used for other arthritic joints.
Receiving hyaluronic acid injections for joints in other places, like your hand or hip, would be an example of off-label drug usage.
Off-label drug use
Off-label drug use is when a drug that’s approved by the FDA for one purpose is used for a different purpose that hasn’t yet been approved.
However, a doctor can still use the drug for that purpose. This is because the FDA regulates the testing and approval of drugs, but not how doctors use drugs to treat their patients.
So your doctor can prescribe a drug however they think is best for your care.
The ACR and AF now conditionally recommend against hyaluronic acid injections for people living with knee OA or OA in your first carpometacarpal (CMC) joint.
Your first CMC joint is located near your thumb.
The ACR and AF strongly recommend against these injections for people living with hip OA.
Other injections such as platelet-rich plasma (PRP) and stem cell injections are being used on an experimental basis.
Surgery is typically reserved for people who have severe and debilitating OA.
An osteotomy is an operation that realigns a bone by cutting and then repositioning it. This type of operation is sometimes performed around your knee joint to help manage the symptoms of OA pain.
Sometimes a bone fusion (arthrodesis) is done to treat severely deteriorated joints. Arthrodesis of your hip or knee is rarely performed, but a fusion can be done on other joints, such as those in your:
For severely arthritic hip and knee joints, a total joint replacement (arthroplasty) can provide long-lasting pain relief and a marked improvement in lifestyle.
To help manage pain and reduce symptoms, some simple lifestyle adjustments can make things easier on your bones and joints. These adjustments can improve function as well as quality of life.
Low-impact exercise can help strengthen muscles and keep bones strong. Exercise also improves joint mobility.
Forgo high-impact exercises, such as:
Consider low-impact exercises instead, such as:
These exercises are all easier on your joints.
Also check out these exercises for OA inflammation and pain.
Heat or cold therapy
Apply warm compresses or cold packs to joints when they’re sore or painful. This can help relieve pain and reduce inflammation.
Using assistive devices can help unload and provide support to arthritic joints. Examples include:
Giving painful, sore joints adequate rest can help relieve pain and reduce swelling.
According to Tufts University, losing as little as 5 pounds can help decrease the symptoms of OA, especially in large joints like your knees and hips.
It’s very common to experience some soreness and aching in our joints as we age — especially when:
- climbing stairs
It’s also possible that degeneration of cartilage can lead to inflammation and OA over time.
However, there are both medical treatments and lifestyle changes that you can adopt to help reduce your pain and manage other symptoms.
If you have OA, it’s always a good idea to speak with a doctor to explore your treatment options.