In the second instalment of our “Ask The GP” series, Dr Richard Quigley, a GP with over 30 years’ experience, addresses some frequently asked questions about the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for osteoarthritis.
What is osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis is a long-term condition. It has been traditionally known as “wear and tear” of the joints. It mainly affects the hands, knees and hips and is associated with various factors, including ageing, overuse of joints and obesity.
What causes osteoarthritis?
The underlying trigger and cause for osteoarthritis remains unknown currently. However, there is research being carried out now which may throw further light on the various factors responsible for the appearance of osteoarthritis.
Are there any risk factors for osteoarthritis?
There are a few risk factors associated with developing osteoarthritis. These include:
There are certain occupational factors which can also put undue stress on joints, such as heavy industrial work.
What are the symptoms to look out for?
Osteoarthritis usually affects you slowly over time and the main symptoms are pain, stiffness and swelling of the joints. The severity of osteoarthritis can vary greatly from person to person but if you are experiencing the above symptoms in your joints, seek advice from your healthcare professional.
How is osteoarthritis diagnosed?
In the early stages, osteoarthritis is usually clinically diagnosed by a doctor or a nurse by assessing the history of joint pain and swelling. If it is deemed appropriate, then your medical practitioner may suggest an x-ray to confirm the diagnosis.
There are no blood tests that particularly help in the diagnosis of osteoarthritis. However, blood tests may be carried out to distinguish osteoarthritis from other types of arthritis.
How can I treat/ manage osteoarthritis?
There are three main ways you can treat or manage osteoarthritis.
Firstly, addressing certain lifestyle factors including losing weight and maintaining a healthy lifestyle and doing appropriate muscle strengthening exercises.
Secondly, physiotherapy. For example, physiotherapy is an extremely useful treatment option for osteoarthritis of the knee, but it can also help with other joints. Your healthcare professional should be able to refer you to a physiotherapist through the NHS if necessary.
Thirdly, there are certain medication treatment options. With osteoarthritis, often the joints can be painful and swollen and your healthcare professional will consider a variety of medications including common painkillers such as paracetamol and co-codamol and/or anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen.
There are stronger painkiller medication options available should this be necessary.
In advanced cases where medication does not control symptoms, patients are often referred to the local orthopaedic department for additional treatments such as joint injections or even replacement surgery.
If I have a family history of arthritis, can I do anything to prevent it?
At the present time, there is known to be a higher risk of osteoarthritis in families where close relatives have already been diagnosed. However, it is not a genetic disease.
There is considerable interest in exploring these genetic links which may help in producing potential treatments in the future.
In terms of prevention, it is not possible to prevent osteoarthritis all together. The best thing to do is to maintain a healthy weight (Body Mass Index of below 30) and maintain a regular exercise regime and healthy lifestyle.
Are there any additional support or resources where I can learn more about osteoarthritis?
Yes, there are several great online resources available to you. Versus Arthritis (www.versusarthritis.org) is an excellent resource to learn more about osteoarthritis and allied conditions. Additionally, there are also some helpful NHS resources about living with osteoarthritis which can be found here:
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