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6 Frequently Asked Questions About Osteoarthritis

What Newly-Diagnosed People Want to Know Most

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Updated October 30, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Most people think that they understand osteoarthritis. Most likely, a grandparent had the disease -- or perhaps another relative or friend. If so, you observed someone close to you struggle with pain and increasing disability.

But once you are no longer just a spectator and you are diagnosed with osteoarthritis, you realize that you have more questions than answers about the disease. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions:

1 - How did I get this disease? Does everyone develop osteoarthritis?
There are certain risk factors associated with osteoarthritis which increase your chances of developing the disease. Three of the most commonly discussed risk factors are being overweight, previous joint injury, and genetics. There are other risk factors involved as well.

It was once thought that aging and wear-and-tear of joints over time brought on osteoarthritis. Researchers, who are still learning about the cause of osteoarthritis, have found that inflammation may play a role. What we do know for sure is that not everyone who has x-ray evidence of osteoarthritis will develop symptomatic osteoarthritis.

2 - Is there a cure for osteoarthritis?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for osteoarthritis. Researchers will continue to work towards finding a cure but until that discovery is made, your focus must be on managing the disease. Without a cure, osteoarthritis remains a chronic disease characterized by chronic pain, meaning, you will deal with it for the rest of your life.

3 - Is osteoarthritis the same as rheumatoid arthritis? Is one more disabling than the other?
Osteoarthritis is not the same condition as rheumatoid arthritis. Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are two distinct types of arthritis. Osteoarthritis, which affects about 27 million people in the U.S., is also known as degenerative joint disease. It is associated with the breakdown of joint cartilage.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic, autoimmune, inflammatory type of arthritis which affects about 1.3 million people in the U.S. The synovium (i.e., lining of the joint) is mostly affected by rheumatoid arthritis. The disease can also have systemic effects. While rheumatoid arthritis is generally considered more crippling, osteoarthritis also can result in disability.

4 - Will physical activity make my osteoarthritis worse? Do I need to give up participating in sports?
It is a myth that physical activity will make osteoarthritis worse. It is easy to understand why people believe that, however. When people exercise or participate in regular physical activity, pain levels may temporarily increase. People equate increased pain with a worsening condition. In actuality, regular physical activity is considered necessary for the long-term management of osteoarthritis. If you have questions about participating in a specific activity, talk to your doctor.

5 - Are traditional treatments, such as medications, more effective than alternative treatments for osteoarthritis?
You will find osteoarthritis patients who do very well with a regimen of osteoarthritis medications. They may take a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug or an analgesic medication. Other patients require more and look to what used to be called alternative treatments -- now aptly called complementary treatments (e.g., massage, acupuncture, supplements). Some people prefer natural pain remedies and complementary treatments. Others prefer a traditional treatment regimen. Use trial-and-error to find what works best for you.

6 - Will I eventually need a joint replacement? What's my prognosis?
People who fail to achieve a satisfactory level of pain relief with non-surgical treatments may consider joint replacement surgery. However, experts claim that most cases of osteoarthritis stabilize. A certain number of cases do gradually progress. The severity of your symptoms and how well you respond to treatment are factors that will determine your prognosis or the eventual need for a joint replacement.

Sources:

Primer on the Rheumatic Diseases. Thirteenth Edition. Osteoarthritis: Course, Prognosis, and Outcome. Paul Dieppe MD. p.227.

Arthritis-Related Statistics. CDC. August 1, 2011.
http://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/data_statistics/arthritis_related_stats.htm#2

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