What Is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a debilitating chronic condition that affects joints. It is one of the key conditions treated during orthopedic rehabilitation.  The main cause of osteoarthritis is the degeneration of the cartilage. Most commonly, arthritis affects weight bearing joints, such as knees and hips.  It may also affect the spine, including neck and lower back, shoulders, ankles and hands.  In the spine, osteoarthritis is referred to as stenosis and Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD). 

What is Cartilage?

Cartilage is a tough and rubbery substance that covers the ends of bones.  It is softer and more flexible than bones.  Cartilage provides cushion, support, stability, protection and shock absorption to joints and allow bones to move smoothly.

Cartilage does not have blood supply and therefore cannot repair itself once damaged.

Injury, prolonged stress on joints, sedentary lifestyle and obesity can change the structure of the cartilage.  It becomes weaker and thinner and loses its rigidity and support to the joint.  With the loss of cartilage, the joint space becomes narrow and causes more friction. 

In early stages of degeneration, mild symptoms of pain, swelling and inflammation are seen. Progressively, more cartilage damage causes more inflammation, stiffness, pain and joint deformity.  In advanced stages of osteoarthritis, the cartilage damage is so severe that it causes bone-on-bone friction. 

What are Symptoms and Causes of Osteoarthritis?

When osteoarthritis affects knees or hips, it produces symptoms of pain, swelling and inflammation.  Arthritic joints lose their mobility, while surrounding muscles lose their strength and flexibility.  People with knee arthritis have a difficult time getting up from a long period of sitting or getting out of bed in the morning, squatting down or going up and down stairs.  They report knee popping, crunching, locking or giving way.  Pain due to arthritis keeps people away from enjoying more vigorous activities, such as running or jumping or sports in general.

When osteoarthritis affects the spine, it may produce symptoms of pain and stiffness in the back and neck, pins and needles or numbness in arms and legs.  People will have a difficult time moving, bending and picking up heavy objects. 

The symptoms of arthritis may go through phases of remission or dormancy and exacerbation or flare-up.  When in remission, the pain is mild – swelling and inflammation are minimal.  Arthritis can be flared up by changes in weather, with colder temperatures making symptoms worse.

Also, physical stress and too much exertion on the body can put more strain on already-weak muscles and joints and cause more pain and inflammation.  People with sedentary lifestyle and obesity are more prone to joint and muscle pain due to increased stress on joints, decreased blood flow and overall deconditioning of the body.  Underlying conditions, such as diabetes or high cholesterol, may also exacerbate symptoms of osteoarthritis. 

Osteoarthritis Treatment

Early detection and treatment can dramatically slow down the progression of arthritis. 

Physical therapy is a great option for people who suffer from osteoarthritis.  For example, physical therapy offers multiple solutions on how to decrease pain and inflammation. 

The most effective way to treat arthritic joints is to apply heat and Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS).  The combination of heat and TENS will promote more blood flow, increase joint mobility and decrease pain.  In addition to that, ultrasound or laser may be utilized to further speed up healing and decrease inflammation. 

Once pain is decreased, gentle exercises may be introduced to condition muscles and provide better support and stability for joints.  Arthritic joints can be further supported with a brace, cane or walker.  It is important to be aware of how much stress can be put on your joints in order to avoid overexertion and flare-up of symptoms. 

In early stages of arthritis, patients generally respond well to physical therapy.  Many of them don’t need medication or injections.   They are able to restore joint mobility, muscle strength and endurance.  Adopting and maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle will benefit arthritic joints in the long run.  In advanced stages of arthritis, however, a joint replacement may be the only solution. 

Early treatment is the key to recovery and a healthy lifestyle.  At Excel Physical Therapy, we understand your pain.  We have the necessary expertise and equipment to help you heal. For any questions or further information, please contact our expert physical therapists at 718-301-6363 to schedule a consultation today. 

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