Arthritis is one of the most prevalent chronic health problems and the nation's most common cause of disability.

While there are many benefits to getting older, few people associate the aging process with all the good things that occur as a person approaches their golden years. Instead, aging is more often associated with aches and pains than grandkids and trips around the world.

Though such associations are unfortunate, they are rooted in the reality that aging often comes with a few ailments. One such ailment many older adults deal with is osteoarthritis, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, affects more than 12 million men and women over the age of 65 in the United States alone. In Canada, one in 10 adults has osteoarthritis, proving this most common form of arthritis does not discriminate based on geography.

But as prevalent as osteoarthritis might be, the millions of men and women currently living with the condition are proof that it doesn't have to ruin a person's golden years. In fact, learning about osteoarthritis, its risk factors and prospective treatment options can help those men and women currently living with the condition or those concerned about developing it down the road.

What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis, or OA, is also referred to as degenerative joint disease. The most common type of arthritis, OA occurs when cartilage begins to wear away. Cartilage is an essential part of each joint, helping to absorb shock and enabling the joint to move smoothly. OA most often occurs in the body's weight-bearing joints, which includes the hips, knees and spine.

When a person has OA, the cartilage in a joint stiffens and loses it elasticity, which makes it more susceptible to damage. Joints will be stiff in the morning, a stiffness that can last roughly 15 to 20 minutes. As the day progresses and the joints are used more and more, the pain can intensify and swelling can occur. This is typically because, as the joint's cartilage continues to deteriorate, the tendons and ligaments are stretching and causing pain.

Are there symptoms of OA?

There are symptoms of OA, but these can vary greatly from individual to individual. Some people experience few symptoms of OA even if X-rays indicate their joints have undergone significant degeneration. In addition, the pain associated with OA isn't necessarily constant, and some people can go years without experiencing any OA-related pain. Such instances are most common among people with OA of the hands and knees.

Those who do exhibit symptoms of OA can do so in a variety of ways. Men and women with progressive cartilage degeneration in their knee joints might become bow legged or develop a limp, which will worsen as the cartilage continues to degenerate.

OA of the spine often causes pain in the neck or lower back. Severe pain can be caused by bony spurs that form along the spine, and numbness and tingling of affected body parts can result as well.
Men and women with OA of the hands can also exhibit symptoms, which are usually bony deformities along the joints of the fingers. Heberden's node is a bony enlargement at the small joint of the fingers that occurs because of bone spurs resulting from OA in that joint. A bony knob that occurs at the middle joint of the fingers, known as Bouchard's node, is also quite common among men and women with OA of the hands. While neither of these nodes is especially painful, they are associated with limited motion of the affected joint.

Patients with OA at the base of the big toes might notice the formation of a bunion, something that researchers suggest is possibly genetic, as it can be found in numerous female members of certain families.

The Arthritis Society in Nova Scotia notes that, early on, men and women with OA will find their symptoms are typically only triggered by high impact activities. However, eventually the pain can be triggered by daily activities and might not subside until men and women get adequate rest. Some people even feel pain for most of the day, including when they are attempting to fall asleep at night.

Can OA be treated?

OA can be treated, but men and women must recognize that it cannot be cured. As mentioned above, some people's symptoms can disappear for years at a time. But they will return, and treatment, if it was ceased, must then continue.

OA is most common among people who are overweight, so one of the most effective ways to reduce pain from OA is to lose weight and get regular exercise. This takes pressure off of joints that are being heavily taxed. To lose weight, choose a low-fat diet that features plenty of vegetables, fruits, lean proteins and whole-grains. For a more specific diet, consult a physician.

Though exercising when pain from OA is significant might seem counterintuitive, exercise is actually great for the joints. Each person is different, so consult a physician before beginning a new exercise regimen. However, don't shy away from aerobic exercises, including walking, swimming or even riding a bicycle, or strength-training exercises like weightlifting, which makes the muscles stronger and more capable of supporting the joints. And as with any exercise routine, don't forget to stretch.

Another treatment option for joints hurting because of OA is the application of a heating pad or a cold pack. Cold and heat can be applied several times per day (always cover the skin with a towel prior to application to avoid skin damage). But those nursing an injury should only apply cold for the first few days.

Medications are another treatment option for OA. Discuss medications, which can include over-the-counter anti-inflammatory pills, such as Advil, Aleve or Motrin, prescription medications, and corticosteroid injections, with a physician who can help determine the best course of action.

While surgery is not a necessary course of treatment for the majority of OA sufferers, for some it is. Surgical options can be a minimally invasive arthroscopic procedure, a joint fusion surgery wherein the joint is removed and bones are held together with screws, pins or plates, or a complete or partial joint replacement. Another surgical option is an osteotomy, a procedure where a section of the bone is cut and removed to improve joint alignment and stability.