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What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis (OA) occurs when cartilage (tissue that cushions a joint) wears away slowly and causes the bones to rub together. OA is a long-term condition that often affects the hands, neck, lower back, knees, and hips. OA is also called arthrosis or degenerative joint disease.

What increases my risk for OA?

  • Age older than 50 years
  • A family history of OA
  • Obesity, high blood pressure, or high blood sugar
  • A joint injury or infection
  • Repetitive movements of your joints at work or during sports

What are the signs and symptoms of OA?

  • Joint pain that gets worse when you move the joint
  • Joint stiffness that decreases after you move the joint
  • Decreased range of movement
  • Hard, bony enlargement on your fingers or toes
  • A grinding or cracking sound when you move your joint

How is OA diagnosed?

X-rays are pictures of the bones in your joint. Contrast liquid may be injected into your joint before the x-ray. The liquid will help your joint show up better on the x-ray. Tell the healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid.

How is OA treated?

The goals of treatment are to decrease pain, increase strength, and improve movement. You may need any of the following:

  • Medicines:
    • Acetaminophen is used to decrease pain. It is available without a doctor's order. Ask how much to take and how often to take it. Follow directions. Acetaminophen can cause liver damage if not taken correctly.
    • NSAIDs , such as ibuprofen, help decrease swelling, pain, and fever. This medicine is available with or without a doctor's order. NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding or kidney problems in certain people. If you take blood thinner medicine, always ask your healthcare provider if NSAIDs are safe for you. Always read the medicine label and follow directions.
    • Capsaicin cream may help decrease pain in your joint.
    • Prescription pain medicine may be given to decrease severe pain if other medicines do not work. Take the medicine as directed. Do not wait until the pain is severe before you take your medicine.
    • A steroid injection may be given if your symptoms get worse.
  • Physical therapy may be used to teach you exercises to help improve movement and strength, and to decrease pain.
  • Surgery may be needed if other treatments do not work.

How can I manage my symptoms?

  • Stay active. Physical activity may reduce your pain and improve your ability to do daily activities. Avoid activities that cause pain. Ask your healthcare provider what type of exercise would be best for you.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. This helps decrease the strain on the joints in your back, hips, knees, ankles, and feet. Ask your healthcare provider how much you should weigh. Ask him to help you create a weight loss plan if you are overweight.
  • Use heat or ice on your joints as directed. Heat and ice help decrease pain, swelling, and muscle spasms. Use a heating pad on a low setting or take a warm bath. Use an ice pack, or put crushed ice in a plastic bag. Cover it with a towel.
  • Massage the muscles around the joint to relieve pain and stiffness.
  • Use a cane, crutches, or a walker to protect and relieve pressure on your ankle, knee, and hip joints. You may also be prescribed shoe inserts to decrease pressure in your joints.
  • Wear flat or low-heeled shoes. This will help decrease pain and reduce pressure on your ankle, knee, and hip joints.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You have severe pain.
  • You cannot move your joint.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have a fever.
  • Your joint is red and tender.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.

Learn more about Osteoarthritis

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