Osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease of the joints and it is more common in joints that bear the most weight such as the knees, hips and spine. We are unaware of the wear and tear that happens to the cartilages in our joints. And even if the pain has come to our attention it is usually mild and easily ignored or brushed aside by taking in painkillers. While this creates a dismissive attitude to the pain, we are contributing to the worsening, and acceleration of complication to our joints.
Osteoarthritis diagnosis has to be made by your doctor when you’ve experienced its typical symptoms; joint pain, morning stiffness, stiffness and cramp-like pain after a period of inactivity. Even more so for the elderlies and people who have had accidents involving their joints. Your doctor will then examine your joints and search for signs that are suggestive of osteoarthritis such as tenderness, crepitus upon movement, specific deformity, limitation of movement, shrinking of muscle mass around the joint and some others. And finally, a plain x-ray of the joint will confirm the diagnosis of osteoarthritis.
Osteoarthritis should never be left untreated. Its complications are serious, life-long, and debilitating. Listed are some of the more common complications:
When the cartilages wear off and the bones are rubbing off one another, the bone will create bony spurs, or projections extending from the main body as to create a larger surface area to support the weight of our body. These spurs can be a major source of pain to the patient.
Damaged Tendons and Ligaments
Tendons and ligaments that are found in and around the joints will be stretched beyond their normal limits when the cartilages start to become thinner and thinner. Over time, these structures lose their strength and will lead to weak and unstable joints.
Joint damage can be so severe up to a point that blood flow will be compromised. The end result of this is osteonecrosis or simply, bone death. The bones will become frail, break easily or might even get infected.
This is a serious inflammation of the joints caused by a bacterial infection. A joint with extensive damage from osteoarthritis will be susceptible to infections. Septic arthritis will cause massive destruction to the surrounding structures and may even spread to the blood.
Unequal distribution of destruction at the joint may lead to angulation at the site. This will cause bowing of the legs or in scientific term, genu varum. This is a permanent deformity and to correct this requires surgery.
In osteoarthritis of the spine, the space between two adjacent vertebrae narrows. Nerves pass through these said spaces, and when the vertebrae close on each other, they compress the nerves causing sharp, shooting, chronic pain that travels down the leg.
Treatment for osteoarthritis includes drugs to control the pain, agents that protect and repair articular surfaces such as glucosamine and chondroitin sulphate. Also, supportive therapy to improve the patient’s overall state of health such as weight reduction, local heat application and exercise. And lastly, surgical treatment is reserved for patients with debilitating deformities.
With all that said, it is imperative for us to recognize the symptoms of osteoarthritis. The Global Burden of Disease 2010 study estimates that 251 million people worldwide suffer from osteoarthritis. And it is also the commonest joint disease in Malaysia. If we are able to address the problem at its early stages, this will significantly improve the patient’s quality of life in the long run and save the patient a lot of money from being spent on expensive corrective surgeries.