What is Osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common type of arthritis and can cause joints to feel stiff and painful. It is more common in older people but can also affect younger people especially if there has been an injury to a joint. Sometimes OA causes the joints to swell and change shape, especially the finger joints, and sometimes the joints make creaking or cracking noises.
The symptoms of OA can vary a lot. Sometimes there is no pain at all and sometimes the pain can be severe and moving them is difficult. There can be a loss of muscle around the joints and this can make them feel weaker. Almost all joints can develop osteoarthritis but the most common places are the fingers, thumbs, knees and hips as well as the low back.
It may also involve the joints of the neck in older people resulting in stiffness and pain in movement. This can be severe in cases of ankylosing spondylitis.
In addition to pain from movement, a dull ache may result from a muscular effort to support and hold your head still. The pains are often felt in the back of the head or may radiate over your shoulders and down your arms and may be accompanied by tingling in your fingers.
Inside a joint with osteoarthritis, there is loss of cartilage which surrounds the ends of the bones and acts as a shock absorber and the formation of new bone which can cause the joints to look lumpy or become bent.
These symptoms are often troublesome at night and made worse by sleeping with the head in an abnormal position the result of using too many pillows and sleeping on a soft mattress.
Poor posture or sleeping heavily with too many pillows may also give rise to pain and stiffness of the neck.
According to research, they say that everyone will develop some form of osteoarthritis, eventually. If people live long enough, 100% of the entire human population will develop osteoarthritis. One of the biggest risk factors for developing osteoarthritis apart from age is obesity, genetics and gender.
Genetics can play a part in determining whether a person will develop osteoarthritis, but other factors are also at work. It is the process of the breaking down of cartilage in the joints and the inflammatory response to that.
Often no special tests are needed to diagnose osteoarthritis, but sometimes blood tests may be taken to make sure that nothing else is wrong and sometimes X-rays can help confirm the diagnosis. Sometimes MRI scans are used but these are usually not necessary. X-rays of the neck and low back are not useful in diagnosing osteoarthritis because they often show changes that happen normally with age and many people with these changes have no pain.
In hip osteoarthritis, the cartilage in the hip joint thins over time, reducing the protective layer between bones, leading to bone-on-bone rubbing and the formation of new bone spurs. These changes contribute to the symptoms of hip osteoarthritis—which include pain and stiffness in the groin, buttocks, and knee. Osteoarthritis is a progressive disease, with sequential stages. Your treatment will depend on the stage of your hip osteoarthritis.
The severity of osteoarthritis symptoms can vary greatly from person to person, and between different affected joints.
Research has shown that if you suffer from osteoarthritis pain in the knee or hip, then aerobic and stretching exercises in warm water can help to relieve it.
Hydrotherapy is another treatment used for OA which is hot water, cold water, and alternating hot and cold water. Hot water is known for stimulating the immune system and is also good for increasing your circulation. Cold water constricts blood vessels and is effective in reducing inflammation.
Using both hot and cold has been found to improve circulation. It was found that water heated between 32 degrees C to 36 degrees C slightly reduces osteoarthritis pain over three months. They say that hydrotherapy changes lives and has been proven to be a highly effective form of natural therapy which works by stimulating the endorphins, which in turn helps you to control pain and alleviate tension.
The buoyancy of the water can make some activity seem easier, while it is actually working muscles very hard. Patients should get used to how their body feels after a session in order to gauge appropriate levels of activity (i.e. not “overdoing” it).
Arthritis Research has an article on how you can access hydrotherapy through the NHS. They say that hydrotherapy sessions are available on the NHS, and most hospitals have access to hydrotherapy pools. Any member of the healthcare team should be able to refer you to an NHS physiotherapist if they think you might benefit from hydrotherapy. In some parts of the UK you can also refer yourself to a physiotherapist, who’ll assess whether hydrotherapy would be suitable for you. Check with your GP or call your local rheumatology department to find out if an NHS physiotherapist in your area will accept self-referrals.