Arthritis is the inflammation or swelling of one or more joints in the body, and it is estimated that at least 22.7% (54.4 million) of adults in the U.S. have doctor-diagnosed arthritis. This diagnosis encompasses hundreds of conditions that affect the joints and connective tissues surrounding the joints, but one of the most common types of arthritis is known is osteoarthritis (OA)—which is sometimes referred to as degenerative arthritis, degenerative joint disease, or wear-and-tear arthritis.
What is degenerative osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis is referred to as degenerative arthritis because it’s a chronic joint condition that worsens over time. OA is an incurable, non-inflammatory disease that causes the cartilage in your joints—the smooth, white tissue that covers the ends of bones where they articulate—to deteriorate. (Unfortunately, damaged cartilage can’t repair itself, as it doesn’t contain any blood vessels to facilitate the healing process.) While OA can develop in any joint, it is most commonly found in joints within your knees, hips, spine, hands, and fingertips.
What causes degenerative osteoarthritis?
Age is one of the main causes of joint damage that leads to osteoarthritis, as the older you are, the more wear and tear you’ve experienced on your joints. OA can also be triggered by the accumulation of damage to one or more joints caused by obesity, joint overuse, or joint injury (known as post-traumatic osteoarthritis). Additionally, there are hereditary forms of osteoarthritis.
What are the symptoms of degenerative arthritis?
Because osteoarthritis causes cartilage to break down in the joint, it can lead to uncomfortable resistance when the joint is in use. Severe cases of OA can cause cartilage to wear away completely, which results in painful bone-on-bone contact.
Degenerative arthritis symptoms commonly include:
- Joint pain
- Joint stiffness
- Joint instability
- Inflammation or swelling
- Muscle weakness around affected joint
- Reduced range of motion
- Joint cracking, popping, or creaking
- Bone spurs
- Joint deformation
It’s common for OA to affect one set of joints, with symptoms beginning on one side of the body and then spreading to the other. If you experience OA symptoms throughout several joints in your body, you could have what is called generalized osteoarthritis.
How is degenerative osteoarthritis diagnosed?
Osteoarthritis is a clinical diagnosis that is made by a doctor or physiotherapist. During an exam, a medical professional will conduct a full workup—including a physical exam and a review of your medical history—to determine if you have OA, the severity of your condition, and the most appropriate treatment plan. Other procedures such as blood tests, X-rays, MRIs, joint tissue biopsies, and joint fluid analyses may also be required to ensure proper diagnosis.
Non-surgical degenerative osteoarthritis treatments
Being diagnosed with osteoarthritis can be an overwhelming experience, but it’s important to know there are many first-line, non-invasive degenerative arthritis treatments out there that can help you minimize symptoms and live comfortably.
While it may seem counterintuitive at first, one of the most effective treatments for osteoarthritis is physical activity. This helps you strengthen the muscles that surround your joints, which can reduce symptoms like stiffness and instability. It’s important to get advice from your doctor on what activities you should do and how much physical movement you should get each day, but low-impact activities like gentle stretching exercises, walking, swimming, or biking are all great options.
Weight loss is another method to help ease the symptoms of osteoarthritis, as being overweight can put additional strain on your affected joints and cause pain or discomfort. Losing weight not only helps you manage OA symptoms, but it can also reduce your risk for other conditions like diabetes or heart disease.
Topical creams, acetaminophen, NSAIDs, glucosamine, analgesics or opioids, and cortisone injections may be recommended by your doctor to treat degenerative arthritis that causes severe, frequent pain. But it’s important to note that these medications should not be taken for extended periods of time. In addition to medications, patients can minimize pain and instability with assistive devices like braces, inserts, and orthoses.
Physical therapy administered by a licensed physical therapist (PT) is one of the most effective first-line treatments for degenerative arthritis. Educated in the biomechanics of the human body and proper rehabilitation methods, PTs can closely evaluate your condition and provide a personalized treatment plan. Through techniques that facilitate stretching, strength training, and proper alignment and movement, a PT can help patients with OA reduce their pain and increase their mobility and range of motion.
Joint Academy: Virtual physical therapy for degenerative osteoarthritis
If you’re living with degenerative osteoarthritis and need easy access to a professional physical therapist, Joint Academy is here to help. With our virtual physical therapy application, you can digitally connect with a licensed physical therapist and start treating OA from the comfort of home. Featuring clinically proven exercise programs, interactive education about chronic joint pain, goal tracking, and personalized access to a PT, our platform makes treating your OA easier and more convenient than ever.