How to Recognize Osteoarthritis Symptoms 

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This very common condition, which primarily affects those 60 and older, has some distinctions from other types of arthritis. It's important to know the differences.

About 27 million Americans are currently living with osteoarthritis, and experts say it's little wonder that it's the most common type of arthritis. That's because age and obesity are two major risk factors, and since the baby-boomer generation is getting older — and many of them are overweight — the number of people with osteoarthritis is predicted to exceed 60 million by 2020. But how do you know whether you've developed osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis symptoms usually occur in the joints of the neck and back, hips, knees, and fingers. "Osteoarthritis is a term doctors use to describe two joint problems that may or may not go together," says Jonathan Edwards, MD, a professor of connective tissue medicine at University College London in England. "The most common is bony thickening around the rim of joints, which occurs after damage has occurred, or just with time. The second problem is a wearing out of the cartilage surface [the soft cushion between bones] of the joint. This is the main reason for hip or knee replacement."

Osteoarthritis Symptoms: What to Watch For
Common osteoarthritis symptoms you should watch out for include pain, stiffness, reduced movement, swelling, and a clicking or grating noises when moving the joint. Here's how these symptoms might be recognized:

  1. Pain. Osteoarthritis pain tends to worsen as the day goes on, rather than loosen up," notes Dr. Edwards. Osteoarthritis pain gets worse with activity and is relieved by rest. Examples include hip pain when going up stairs, knee pain when walking, and finger pain after cooking or sewing or doing other hand work. In later stages of osteoarthritis, the symptoms can be constant. "Worn hip and knee joints may become painful even to stand on," says Edwards.
  2. Stiffness and decreased motion. Osteoarthritis symptoms of stiffness and difficulty moving the joint usually are worse when waking up in the morning, especially if the joint was exercised the day before. The stiffness will usually clear up in about 30 minutes. Knee joints may lock up or suddenly buckle. "Sudden catching or giving way is quite common," says Edwards.
  3. Swelling and clicking. The bony spurs that occur in osteoarthritis can cause the joints to increase in size. This is most noticeable in the hands, where finger joints become enlarged and can make the fingers look bony and crooked. A clicking or grating noise may be heard when moving the joint. Doctors call this osteoarthritis symptom "crepitus."

Could You Have Osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis is a disease that most commonly affects older people, typically those who are 60 and older. It is exceedingly rare for someone to be diagnosed with osteoarthritis before the age of 40. Osteoarthritis is distinguished from other types of arthritis more by the symptoms that you don't get because "there are no very specific symptoms of osteoarthritis [versus other types of arthritis]," says Edwards. Here are some facts that can help you differentiate between types of arthritis:

  1. Stiffness in the morning that lasts longer than 30 minutes is less likely to be a symptom of osteoarthritis, as this type of stiffness generally clears up within that time.
  2. Osteoarthritis affects certain joints and leaves others alone. If you have many different joints affected on both sides of your body, it's less likely that the cause is osteoarthritis.
  3. Osteoarthritis rarely affects the wrist, elbow, or ankle. If you have joint pain in these areas, it’s unlikely to be caused by osteoarthritis.
  4. Unless osteoarthritis is far along, it is unlikely to cause pain at night.
  5. Joint pain that is associated with other symptoms, such as a rash or a fever, is unlikely to be caused by osteoarthritis.
  6. There are no blood tests that can detect osteoarthritis; however, your doctor can use a blood test to see if another type of arthritis is causing your symptoms.

Knowing how to recognize osteoarthritis symptoms — or rather those that indicate that osteoarthritis is more likely than other types of arthritis — can help you catch the disease in its earliest stages, when weight loss and exercise are most helpful.



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