Have you been told you have Osteoarthritis?

Unsure of what it is or what you can do about it? Have a read!

What Is Arthritis?

Arthritis is a very broad umbrella term which encompasses more than 100 different medical conditions, all of which affect the musculoskeletal system.

Arthritis specifically effects the joints in the body (where 2 bones meet) and can result in pain and stiffness.   

While there are many different types of arthritis, the main focus of this blog is osteoarthritis, which is what we commonly encounter as physiotherapists.

What Is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common form of joint disease, according to Arthritis Australia

It affects the entire joint – bones, cartilage, ligaments and muscles.

Many health professionals describe this type of arthritis as ‘wear and tear’, however more recent research into OA has shown that it may be caused by the joint working overly hard to repair itself. 

OA can affect any of the joints in the body, however the back, hips, knees, fingers and big toes are the most common.

It may include

  • Inflammation of the tissues around the joint
  • Ligament and tendon deterioration 
  • Bone spurs (that tend to grow around the edge of the joint)
  • Damage to the cartilage (which is the shock absorbing protective cushion that allows your joint to move smoothly)

What Are Some Symptoms Of Osteoarthritis?

OA can present differently in each person and can be dependant on the joint/s involved. It generally takes a long time for OA to develop (months or even years), and symptoms early in the condition can be different to later on.

Generally, pain and stiffness around the joint is the most common complaint and these sensations are due to the inflammatory nature of OA. 

Early on in OA, symptoms are worse during an aggravating activity, while pain becomes more constant later in the disease.

Pain and stiffness can impact your day to day living and affect your ability to do you normal daily tasks or participate in activities you enjoy. 

Commonly, the joint is stiff and sore first thing in the mornings, can be worse in cold weather (even though this is a myth, we hear this complaint a lot in the clinic!), and tends to ache at night in bed. 

Let’s take the knee for example. 

Some symptoms that you may experience include (but are not limited to);

  • Pain with kneeling
  • Pain with or unable to squat
  • Crunching or grinding when bending and straightening the knee
  • Swelling
  • Tender to touch over the joint line
  • Stiffness when getting up in the morning or after sitting for long period

It is important to note that these symptoms overlap with other knee conditions, so if you do experience any of these, please consult your physiotherapist who will undertake screening questions and special tests to assist in diagnosing the cause of your knee pain. 

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How Is Osteoarthritis Diagnosed?

OA is generally diagnosed by an X-Ray of the joint/s in question. 

It may show narrowing of the affected joint, osteophytes (bony spurs) and changes in the surrounding soft tissues or ligaments (although this is better seen on an MRI). 

If you, your GP or your physiotherapist are suspicious of OA, they can refer you for an X-Ray. 

Beside is an example of what a healthy knee joint looks like compared to a more advanced osteoarthritic knee.

I Have Been Diagnosed With OA, Will I Need A Joint Replacement?

No, not necessarily! 

If the OA is classed as severe and is greatly impacting on your daily life, then you may need to consult an orthopaedic surgeon and discuss options. 

But fear not, there are many other things you can do to help support the arthritic joint and help relieve the pain and stiffness.

Can Physiotherapy Help?

Of course, it can!

In most cases, physiotherapy can help relieve the pain and stiffness associated with the joint and also get you on the right track to strengthening particular muscles to support the painful joint. 

You may think that exercising an OA joint is going to make it worse, but if you work closely with your physiotherapist, they should be able to guide you towards some exercises that are safe and beneficial for your condition. 

Physiotherapy can offer techniques such as 

  • Hands on treatment (massage, mobilisation, trigger point release)
  • Ultrasound (LINK)
  • Dry Needling or Acupuncture (LINK)
  • Exercise Therapy (home exercise programs, supervised exercise sessions, 1:1 exercise) (?Link Pilates)
  • Hydrotherapy (exercise in the water) (LINK)
  • Education regarding activity and lifestyle modifications

Should I Stop Exercising?

Absolutely NOT! 

Staying active is one of the best things that you can do if you have been diagnosed with OA. 

Some benefits of exercise include;

  • Increase in joint flexibility (better joint movement)
  • Increase in strength of the muscles surrounding the affected joint (less stress going through the joint)
  • Improvement in balance and proprioception
  • Release of endorphins (the body’s natural pain relief)

However, it is important that the exercise is tailored to you, as everyone is different.

Two people with knee OA can have very different symptoms and levels of ability depending on the severity of the OA.

Consult your physiotherapist and they will be able to guide you towards safe and effective exercises for you. 

How To Relieve Your Symptoms At Home

As we have mentioned, each person with OA can be quite different in terms of severity, area of symptoms and aggravating activities. 

Below we have listed some broad things you can do to help;

  • Try a heat or cold pack on the affected
  • Massage a joint rub into the affected area (such as Flexall)
  • Stay active; light walking or exercising in a warm pool

Consult your physiotherapist, they will be able to help with some hands-on techniques to provide short term relief, and work with you to build a safe and effective exercise program for long term management.