Osteoarthritis: The Disability Epidemic

The ability to move pain-free is one of life’s greatest privileges. Unfortunately, osteoarthritis can take that away; it is the leading cause of work disability, affecting 57.3% (32.5 million) of American adults.

On top of that, one out of every five patients with osteoarthritis experiences depressive symptoms. This further affects their physical, social, and financial well-being.

With that said, managing osteoarthritis is simpler than you may think (without resorting to surgery). The process begins, though, by learning more about it.

Seen (and Unseen) Osteoarthritis Suffering

What is Osteoarthritis and The Science Behind It?

Osteoarthritis refers to a joint degenerative process. Normally, cartilage (specifically hyaline cartilage) and fluid (namely synovial fluid) help lubricate and reduce friction between the bones that comprise a joint.

Damage to the hyaline cartilage sets off an inflammatory cascade that reduces synovial fluid production and damages cartilage-producing cells (chondrocytes). This increases bone friction, leading to bone remodeling (scarring and overgrowth) and degeneration.

What Joints are Affected by Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis commonly affects weight-bearing joints (given their susceptibility to wear and tear) and other joints prone to injury. These include (percentage in brackets refers to the frequency of joint involved):

  • Knee joint (26.7%)
  • Hip joint (18.5%)
  • Distal (35%) and proximal interphalangeal (18%) joints
  • Thumb joint (1.4%)
  • Cervical (13.76%) and lumbar vertebrae (27-37%)
  • 1st metatarsophalangeal joint (13.5%)

Types of Osteoarthritis

There are two types of Osteoarthritis: Primary and secondary.

Primary Osteoarthritis and its Risk Factors

Primary osteoarthritis refers to joint degeneration without any history of trauma or a known medical cause. It primarily affects large weight-bearing joints (such as the knee and hip) and has many risk factors:

Secondary Osteoarthritis and its Causes

Secondary osteoarthritis is joint degeneration due to a known medical cause, for example:

Osteoarthritis Treatment: Is It Curable?

Many osteoarthritis treatment options exist. Let’s discuss these further.

Exercise, Diet and Physical Therapy: First-Line Treatment for Osteoarthritis

Medical Therapy for Osteoarthritis: Second-Line Treatment

Doctors recommend acetaminophen (Tylenol) as the initial medical treatment for osteoarthritis. This is because it’s safe to use and helps relieve pain. For the same reasons, topical pain medications are a great option. For example, 47,113 patients with osteoarthritis, in an analysis of 122 trials, reported pain relief with acetaminophen and topical medication.  

NSAIDs (Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), the next line of medical treatment, offer more significant pain relief and quality of life improvements than acetaminophen. However, they also increase the risk of gastrointestinal discomfort.

For patients who do not respond to acetaminophen or NSAIDs, a doctor may try:

  • Tramadol (a synthetic opioid): A study on 1,020 patients showed that it can significantly relieve pain and improve sleep quality.
  • Duloxetine (an antidepressant, specifically an SSRI); A systematic review including 2,102 patients with osteoarthritis reported significant improvements in pain, function, and quality of life with duloxetine.

Viscosupplementation: Surgery is Not Your Only Option

Viscosupplementation is the introduction of hyaluronic acid, a gel-like fluid, into the joint capsule. This helps reduce friction between bones and, thus, relieves pain and limits joint degeneration.

A systematic review of 25 clinical trials shows viscosupplementation is a safe and effective treatment for osteoarthritis. Another large study, including 4,866 patients with osteoarthritis, corroborates this. Thus, in view of the overwhelming evidence, the EULAR (European Alliance of Associations for Rheumatology) recommends viscosupplementation for all patients with osteoarthritis who do not benefit from medical therapy.

Surgery for Osteoarthritis: The Last Resort

Research shows that ⅓ of all patients with osteoarthritis who undergo surgery do not need it. This is concerning due to the surgery-associated risks:

  • Anesthesia-related complications can be fatal in 11% of patients.
  • Post-op infections and complications affect up to 53.6% of patients undergoing knee surgery.

Thus, most patients benefit from a trial of viscosupplementation before surgery. This is why doctors recommend surgery only for patients:

  • With irreversible joint damage.
  • Who do not respond to six months of non-pharmacological and medical treatment (including viscosupplementation).

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