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Osteoarthritis: 7 Things You Need to Know

How to help those aching joints — without surgery

Hand massaging another hand, Understanding Osteoarthritis (Getty Images)

Osteoarthritis is most common in the knees, hips and hands. — Getty Images

En Español l Osteoarthritis affects 27 million Americans — a number that is expected to skyrocket to 70 million by 2030 — and it's the leading cause of disability in older adults.

The disease is caused by a breakdown of the cartilage that cushions any of the body's joints. With too little cartilage, bones rub together, causing pain and stiffness. The condition is most common in the knees, hips and hands. Over time, osteoarthritis can lead to damage to the ligaments and muscles.

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While joint replacement surgery — like what NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams recently underwent on his knee — has become increasingly popular among millions of boomers, doctors still tell patients to try to manage their symptoms for as long as possible before turning to surgery. Any surgery, after all, comes with risks.

While there is no cure for osteoarthritis, there are some promising developments for early detection of this debilitating condition, as well as a possible treatment to slow its progress.

There are also a number of ineffective therapies that doctors warn osteoarthritis sufferers to avoid, based on an in-depth analysis issued this year by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS).

Among the home remedies the group strongly recommends against: taking the supplements glucosamine and chondroitin. While some studies have shown that these popular supplements reduce pain and slow the disease's advance, the AAOS analysis showed the pills are no more effective than taking a placebo.

To reduce your risks, halt the progression of the disease or ease painful symptoms, here are seven things you need to know about osteoarthritis.

1. Osteoarthritis is not inevitable

Yes, age is a risk factor in developing osteoarthritis, but pain from osteoarthritis is "not an inevitable consequence of aging," says Marc C. Hochberg, M.D., professor of medicine and head of the division of rheumatology and clinical immunology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Although more than half of adults over age 65 have some evidence of osteoarthritis, Hochberg advises older patients to minimize their risks — keeping active and losing weight, for example — before the disease develops.

The thinking about osteoarthritis has also changed, from simply a "wear and tear" disease triggered by the breakdown of cartilage as we get older, to a condition that affects the entire joint, not just the cartilage. This shift in thinking may help doctors diagnose osteoarthritis before significant cartilage damage sets in, by looking for other signs of the disease, including morning stiffness, gelling (stiffness after rest and inactivity) and locking or buckling in the joint.

During an exam, Hochberg notes, a doctor may look for a bony enlargement of the joint or what's called crepitus, a grating sensation felt when the joint is extended. The doctor will then use X-rays to identify changes in the margins of the joints that indicate osteoarthritis. With an examination of the entire joint, earlier detection may be possible and better pain therapies can be prescribed.

Next page: Early detection tests are in the works. »

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