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Five signs of possible osteoarthritis – and what to do about them

As people age, they might experience aches and pains on occasion, especially if they participate in physical activities. However, people who start experiencing aching, pain and stiffness on a routine basis – particularly when pain is at a joint – might be developing osteoarthritis. 

Arthritis describes more than 100 different conditions affecting joints and surrounding tissue. Osteoarthritis is the most common. It can develop after trauma or from age-related wear and tear on joints over time, according to Cristina M. Brunet, MD, a rheumatologist at Yale New Haven Hospital and Yale Medicine. 

Joint wear and tear leads to the breakdown of cartilage, the rubber-like padding that covers and cushions the ends of the bones, allowing them to easily move against each other. As the cartilage breaks down, bone becomes more exposed. Eventually one bone starts to rub against another, causing pain, damage, swelling and problems with motion. 

“Anyone may develop osteoarthritis; and the risk increases with age,” said Dr. Brunet, site director of the rheumatology clinics at YNHH’s Interventional Immunology Center. “It develops in some people when they reach their 60s; although certain individuals may be at risk for osteoarthritis at younger ages due to prior injuries or familial tendency. At times, it develops after a sports injury, with repeated stress, or after surgery.” 

Excess weight may also contribute to developing osteoarthritis in weight-bearing joints, such as the hips or knees, Dr. Brunet said. Osteoarthritis may also be associated with certain metabolic diseases, such as iron overload or diabetes. 

What are the early signs of arthritis? 

  • Pain or aching in a joint that gradually worsens. The pain may be triggered by activity or arise after activity or at the end of the day. Osteoarthritis is most likely to affect weight-bearing joints such as the knees, hips, lower spine or big toe; it can also cause pain and stiffness in the thumb or finger joints. 
  • Joint swelling and tenderness. “Over time, it may become increasingly difficult to move the joint, or to bear weight on the joint,” said Dr. Brunet. 
  • Pain in a joint that was previously injured. Many cases of osteoarthritis occur in a part of the body that suffered a prior injury or trauma. 
  • Grating sound or sensation as a joint moves. These are signs that the cartilage has worn down and can indicate arthritis. It’s most common in the knee and hip but can also affect other joints. 
  • Groin pain. Many people don’t realize that pain from hip arthritis radiates to the groin, not the outside of the hip. Hip arthritis can also cause pain in the thigh or buttocks. 

There is no cure for osteoarthritis, but with early diagnosis, people might be able to slow its progression. Exercise can be one of the best treatments. Walking – provided it does not cause pain – is good; however, it is best to avoid running. Low-impact exercises, such as bicycling or swimming, can reduce wear and tear on weight-bearing joints. Studies have shown that regular yoga practice can decrease pain and improve joint flexibility for people with osteoarthritis.

Other treatments may include:

  • Pain-relieving medications, including lidocaine creams and over-the-counter, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS). More severe, persistent pain is often managed with steroid injections.
  • Ice packs and/or heating pads
  • Physical therapy to improve flexibility, strength and range of motion

If pain worsens, talk to a doctor.  

“A physiatrist, a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation, may be helpful in non-surgical management of mechanical causes of arthritis,” Dr. Brunet said. “Any symptoms that are progressive may need to be evaluated by orthopedics for consideration of surgical intervention.”