By Rick Halle-Podell, Licensed Massage Therapist, Founder of Massage Therapy of Oak Park

Many people believe that osteoarthritis (OA) only affects the elderly. In fact, it strikes people of all ages. Studies show that 45 million people suffer from some form of this disease.

Understanding Osteoarthritis

OA is the term used to describe many different degenerative joint diseases that can result from aging, sports-related injuries, repetitive trauma or infection. With OA, the cartilage and membranes cushioning the end of a bone degenerate and become inflamed. Pain occurs as the cartilage wears away, forcing the ends of the bones to rub against each other. Medical evidence suggests that a lifetime of inadequate diet, little or no exercise, poor posture, repetitive injury overuse syndrome of muscles and joints and even a negative emotional outlook all contribute to the onset of OA.

Osteoarthritis Risk Factors

Osteoarthritis progresses slowly and is the most commonly recognized disease of the joints. Once people reach their mid-40s, OA affects ten times more women than men and is believed to have a genetic predisposition. If your mother or sister had the disease, chances are that other females in your immediate family may also get it. Many people’s first awareness of OA is usually a dull ache in their hands, knees or lower back, particularly in the morning. Although the pain seems to begin quite suddenly, it’s actually the result of decades of cumulative wear and tear on joints, especially the weight-bearing joints such as hips, knees, ankles and spine.

Overuse and trauma to the joints are the next most common cause of OA. Former football players, baseball players and dancers often suffer as a result of overusing knees, shoulder and hip joints. Obesity is another important factor further stressing knees and the lower spine. Diagnosis usually occurs when sufferers first seek a physician’s help to alleviate the pain. Although OA is not fatal, it can impair one’s ability to move the joint through its normal range of motion and cause a loss of strength.

Diagnosing Osteoarthritis

Only a physician can diagnose osteoarthritis. If you suspect that you suffer from OA, make an appointment to see your doctor for an x-ray and/or a blood test. Although 90% of those age 40 or older will show some evidence of OA, only 30% show symptoms such as swelling or pain. While there is no cure for OA, a growing body or research indicates that at the very least, its onset can be slowed. Even more exciting is evidence that the condition may be reversible.

Using Exercise to Fight Osteoarthritis

Historically, physicians advised OA sufferers to apply hot compresses to painful joints, but cautioned against exercise. Today, we understand that activities such as dance, swimming and cross-country skiing can significantly reduce arthritic pain and stiffness. Exercise provides a sense of control and freedom, improves range-of-motion, endurance and strength and reduces muscle inflammation. Exercise can release endorphins, a hormone that reduces sensitivity to pain. Even sex is recommended as a way of relaxing and creating endorphins, which decreases sensitivity to pain.

If you are overweight, exercise also can help you lose weight, thus decreasing the affect of arthritis on weight-bearing joints. Before starting any exercise program, consult with a doctor to assess your general health and the type and pace of exercise that is best for you.

Using Drugs to Treat Osteoarthritis

Although OA has no cure, your physician may recommend over-the-counter drugs such as aspirin, ibuprofen or naproxen to address pain and inflammation. Remember, these drugs can be dangerous if your dosage is too high or if you use them for too long. Long-term use may slow cartilage repair and, in some cases, contribute to cartilage destruction. A few prescription drugs may offer relief from OA pain. For more information on these drugs and their possible side effects, consult your doctor.

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