As you age, certain things ache. Seemingly without reason, your right knee starts giving you a hard time. It hurts after you climb the stairs to work. Funny – it never did that before. Now it seems like at least three times a week that ache comes back. It seems to be getting worse, lasting well past when that last step is climbed. You start considering taking the elevator instead. A few days later you climb out of bed, and here comes that ache. What is happening?
Chances are you have degenerative arthritis in that knee. You aren't that old, so how did you get it? More importantly, how can you make it stop? What are some ways to get longer-lasting relief? Does this mean surgery is in your future? When dealing with degenerative arthritis, there are a few things you should know.
What Is Degenerative Arthritis Exactly?
Arthritis, also known as joint inflammation, is a painful stiffening of the joints. Degenerative arthritis is a type of arthritis that is also known as osteoarthritis. It is an aging disease. It results from normal wear and tear of the joints throughout the body. By age 70 almost every person feels some sort of pain from degenerative arthritis. That's because it's a disease of wear and tear. If you played a sport when you were younger, you are more likely to have arthritis set in to the joints of your knees sooner. It is also somewhat hereditary, so if it afflicted one of your parents or grandparents, you too are more likely to have it.
The most common places people get signs of arthritis first are:
These above-listed affected body parts are either the weight-bearing joints or, as in the case of the hands, repetitive-use joints. Think about how often you are on your feet. Walking affects every body part on this list except the hands. All the years walking and running can take its toll on these joints.
What Happens to the Joints?
Your joints are made up of cartilage, a protein-based smooth and soft tissue that acts as a buffer or shock absorber. It keeps the bones from rubbing against each other and causing pain. As you age that cartilage can start to dry out as the protein degenerates. Your first signs of osteoarthritic pain are felt when this hardening begins to happen. It happens over time and eventually you will lose that cartilage completely. X-rays show what was once a smooth cushion of protection between the bones is now rutted, pitted and hard.
Sometimes this irritation of the cartilage can stimulate new bone growth. These are called bone spurs or osteophytes, and they form around the cartilage thereby irritating it even more. Your body's effort to help protect the cushion by growing something around it is, in all actuality, only making it worse. Whether you have a spur or not, the decrease of the cartilage will lead to a reduction of joint use due to pain and swelling. As it deteriorates it will only get worse.
What Leads to Osteoarthritis?
Degenerative arthritis, as stated above, is a medical condition that occurs as you age. Think of your body like a car. How often have you needed to replace the tires because the tread gets worn down? The cartilage in your joints can be likened to that. All the years it acted as a cushion between joints cause it to just rub and wear thin. Unlike tires on a car, however, you can't just get new cartilage. It isn't as easy as changing a tire.
Some lifestyle conditions may cause osteoarthritis to set in quicker or come on stronger. These are known as secondary conditions. They include but are not limited to:
- Trauma or surgery
- Congenital defects
Let's take a closer look at some of these secondary conditions.
Excessive weight on the body, or obesity, is bad for many of your body's systems. It means there is excess strain on your heart, lungs, endocrine system and the like. It makes sense that the strain extends to your musculoskeletal system which includes, of course, your joints.
2. Trauma or Surgery
If you were an athlete or still are, there is a good chance that you are chipping away at that cartilage a little faster. You may notice your knees ache more in the morning. That's because degenerative arthritis is usually first felt when you try to move after not having done so in a while. People typically refer to it as being stiff. If you've had surgery on any joint in your body, you will develop osteoarthritis quicker.
3. Diabetes and Gout
Not that these two go together, but they are related to an imbalance of certain chemicals in your system. People with diabetes have an issue with the endocrine system and sugar; people with gout have a buildup of gases throughout the body, typically the extremities. These two conditions cause chemical strains that can lead to quicker hardening of the protein cartilage.
4. Congenital Defects
You have been born with a defect in your joints or your body's ability to maintain the cartilage. This is something that is entirely outside of your control.
What Are the Common Signs and Symptoms of Degenerative Arthritis?
Over time you may start to notice that certain parts of your body feel stiff, especially upon waking. The stiffness usually goes away with some activity, but it may come and go throughout the day. At night, after sitting in your favorite chair, you may feel an ache set in. You may hear cracking and popping as you bend your knee upon getting up from a seated position. Your neck may feel stiff beyond muscle pain. These are your first signs that your joints are hardening and you have osteoarthritis setting in.
As with everything, symptoms and pain will vary from person to person. Some people can have pain and stiffness for a period of time and then have no symptoms for a while. X-rays in those afflicted with the condition can show dramatic cartilage loss with very little pain reported. All in all, be mindful that one person's symptoms don't necessarily dictate how someone else will handle the condition.
One thing to keep in mind: Osteoarthritis of the knees especially can be wildly affected by the weight of the upper body. If you start having arthritic pain of the knees and are overweight, losing some of that weight may significantly reduce your symptoms.
How Is Osteoarthritis Different From Other Types of Arthritis?
Degenerative arthritis is a condition that occurs over time and signals your body wearing out. Rheumatoid arthritis, however, is an autoimmune condition in which the body's own immune system attacks body tissue including the cartilage between the joints. This constant assault by the immune system causes inflammation and pain. Rheumatoid arthritis causes extreme pain and results in deformities of the joints. You may have seen someone with slanted or strange-looking hands. This is most likely due to rheumatoid arthritis. It is a painful condition that can be treated but never cured. There is a blood test to determine if you have rheumatoid arthritis.
Keep in mind that as with rheumatoid arthritis, degenerative arthritis can also cause deformation of the hands and feet. It usually occurs due to spurs or osteophytes forming. On the foot this can manifest in the form of a bunion on the big toe. The small joints of the fingers may start to swell, and knuckles may begin to enlarge. The deformity, however, is usually not as drastic as that with rheumatoid arthritis.
What Are the Treatment Options for Degenerative Arthritis?
If you suspect you may be suffering from osteoarthritis, consult with your physician. While there is no blood test, there are some measures that can be taken to exclude other conditions. X-rays can be helpful. Fluid extraction and analysis from the afflicted joint can rule out conditions such as gout and other diseases.
If your doctor does confirm that you are feeling the effects of degenerative arthritis, there are some treatment options available. Physical therapy is almost always the first thing a doctor will prescribe. I was recently introduced to the Egoscue method of therapy. It is an excellent resource to use. This gets those joints in particular moving. Therapists may also give you further tips you can do at home to help keep the joints from continuing to stiffen. Losing weight is also a good idea, primarily if arthritis has set in in the weight-bearing joints like the knees and hips. Braces can also be used and provide relief.
Your doctor may also suggest you take NSAIDs, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as Aleve, ibuprofen and some prescription-strength medications. There are topical creams as well that when applied to the skin may help ease the pain associated with osteoarthritis. If the pain continues, your doctor may inject corticosteroids directly into the cartilage to provide pain relief at the source. In some cases surgery may be required.
If you suspect that achy knee may be the first sign of degenerative arthritis, make an appointment and see your doctor. While there is no cure for the condition, there are ways you can reduce the pain and inflammation associated with it. Again, you may be a person who has intermittent pain; however, the fact remains that over time, it will return.