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Osteoarthritis: 7 Things You Need to Know

How to help those aching joints — without surgery

2. Early detection tests are in the works

Despite the prevalence of osteoarthritis, the disease often goes undiagnosed until it's in advanced stages.

There is no Food and Drug Administration–approved diagnostic test for osteoarthritis, which means it can't be diagnosed with a blood test.

While it's possible to see cartilage on an MRI or ultrasound, subtle changes to the soft tissue that occur in earlier stages of the disease are hard to detect.

"A lot of times people don't go to the doctor until they're in pain, and by the time there is pain, the disease is in its later stages and a lot of cartilage has already been lost," says Roman Krawetz, an assistant professor at the McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health at the University of Calgary.

"A lot of times people don't go to the doctor until they're in pain, and by the time there is pain, the disease is in its later stages and a lot of cartilage has already been lost."

To help identify patients with early-stage osteoarthritis, researchers at the University of Calgary are developing a test that identifies markers of inflammation in blood or the synovial fluid in the joint. Early detection, Krawetz says, might help patients "change their behaviors and help slow the progression of the disease."

3. Technology to halt disease progression is on the horizon

While osteoarthritis has long been thought to be a disease of the cartilage, researchers at Johns Hopkins University discovered that the bone beneath the cartilage reacts to damage by forming new bone. This new, unwanted bone growth further stretches the cartilage, speeding its decline.

The research, published online May 19, 2013, in the journal Nature Medicine, found that injecting a beta inhibitor — called growth factor- Type I receptor — into the bone could halt its abnormal growth.

"There is no cure for osteoarthritis, and treatments are focused on symptom relief and maintaining joint function," says Rebecca Manno, M.D., assistant professor of medicine in the division of rheumatology at Johns Hopkins. "The goal of current osteoarthritis research is to come up with [a treatment] that will alter the process of the disease."

Researchers are developing a clinical trial and are expected to begin recruiting patient participants in 2014.

4. Exercise is one of the best treatment options

For people who suffer from osteoarthritis, the idea of using exercise to reduce pain is often met with skepticism. Many of them have experienced greater osteoarthritis pain when they've upped their levels of activity, which is why Manno describes exercise for osteoarthritis patients as "a double-edged sword."

"When you rest the joint, you tend to feel less pain," she says, but the inactivity can ultimately lead to more discomfort.

Exercise, on the other hand, strengthens the muscles around the joint, which ultimately helps to reduce pain. In fact, a study published in 2012 in the Musculoskelatal Journal of Hospital for Special Surgery found that older adults reported improved physical performance and decreased pain after participating in an exercise program.

Exercise also releases endorphins, which moderate pain, and helps overweight patients lose weight and reduce the stress on their joints, Hochberg adds.

To encourage patients to gradually increase their activity, Manno tells them to start "slow and low," with low-impact exercises for short amounts of time, even if it's for just five minutes at first. As their muscles strengthen, they begin going for longer.

There may be "a small amount of discomfort when you start to exercise, but it improves over time," she says. Of course, if you experience severe pain or decreased ability to use the joint, stop immediately and consult a doctor.

Low-impact exercises like swimming, water aerobics, walking and biking will put the least strain on the joints. Yoga has also proved beneficial for decreasing osteoarthritis pain and improving patients' quality of life.

Next page: Extra pounds can make things worse. »

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