Osteoarthritis (OA) is one of the most common chronic conditions affecting joints in our body and is often referred simply as “arthritis”. Joints are covered with cartilage that provides a smooth surface to help cushion the forces between bones in the body. With arthritis, changes occur to this cartilage leading to a decrease in the joint space and increasing friction between the bones. These changes can cause pain and swelling in the area and impact an individual’s function. The joints most affected are the knees, hips, lower back, neck, and those in the fingers.
What are the risk factors for developing OA?
Research has shown there are some triggers that can accelerate cartilage breakdown in joints. These include:
- Increasing age
- Previous injury
- Inflammatory diseases (examples: Perthes’ disease, and Lyme disease)
What are the common symptoms of OA?
Pain and swelling
Though often present, the level of intensity can vary with reports of cold, trauma and fatigue stimulating the pain within the affected joint. Swelling occurs due to the overproduction of joint fluid when there is degeneration of the cartilage in the joint.
Feeling of stiffness
Stiffness is a common experience with OA. It can last approximately 30 minutes in the morning or it can arise after a period of inactivity - like prolonged sitting or laying.
Reduced range of motion
Within the joint, a loss of range of motion occurs due to changes within the joint space and can lead to a decrease in muscle function around the joint.
With the changes that occur within the joint, snapping or popping sounds can be heard during movement of the affected joint
Loss of muscle strength and instability
The amount of swelling and stiffness at the joint can affect the muscle tissues surrounding the joint. This can lead to a reduction in strength and the muscle’s ability to support the joint.
How can physiotherapy help?
Physiotherapists are movement professionals knowledgeable in assessing and treating conditions relating to muscles and joints! A proven effective treatment in the management of OA that a physiotherapist can offer is exercise. An exercise program designed by a physiotherapist can improve joint range of motion and stability, enhance muscle strength, increase aerobic conditioning, and optimize body weight; all of which contribute to an increase in physical and mental health. However, a physiotherapist can not only outline the exercises, but guide performance of the exercise program with the correct technique and frequency. This is crucial to prevent further injury!
In addition, a physiotherapist can utilize specific manual therapy (hands on) techniques and electrical-physical modalities to improve symptoms. These modalities can include electrical agents (TENS, IFC, NMES), ultrasound, or acupuncture.
And while these tools are important, a crucial component of well-rounded therapy for any injury or condition is education. A physiotherapist can advise on activity modifications or use of braces/devices that may assist in keeping an individual doing what they love.
How long will it take to improve?
Everyone is unique with different health habits, ages and fitness levels so healing times will vary. A physiotherapist can provide treatment for an individual through all stages - periods of acute ‘flare-ups’ of a joint and times when the joint is functioning well. The involvement of alternate medical professionals may be needed at times to prescribe medications or administer injections to help with pain. These tools can be used as an adjunct to exercise and optimize management. Furthermore, some individuals may require surgery to replace a joint, as is often the case in the knee or a hip. But the best part of this process is that physiotherapy treatment both before and after receiving a joint replacement can aid in the overall recovery.
Remember that “motion is lotion”. Quite simply put as humans we thrive with movement! So if OA is met on somewhere on the journey, your local physiotherapist can help move you forward!