Does your hip ache when you stroll on the beach? Or maybe your sore knees prevent you from getting down on the floor with your grandchild? If doing what you love now leaves your joints howling, you may be one of the millions of adults who suffer from osteoarthritis, otherwise known as degenerative joint disease.
“This is when cartilage, the protective lining in our joints that cushion the ends of our bones, breaks down,” explains Dr. William Carroll a Roper St. Francis orthopaedic surgeon. This cartilage degeneration causes our joint bones to rub against one another like sandpaper, resulting in pain and stiffness.
“It’s a lot like how a car tire wears down,” he says. “After you drive many miles, you’ll wear down the tread. Osteoarthritis is simply the wear and tear in your joint causing degeneration of the cartilage. When the cartilage is completely worn off, resulting in pain and loss of function, you may need a joint replacement – much like when the tread on your tires wears down, you need a new set.”
And that wear and tear is age related. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons expects the number of knee replacements, for example, to increase more than 600 percent by 2030. Why? Not only are the procedures more accessible and less painful than in recent decades, we’re living longer- and while that’s good news for us, our aging knees, hips, shoulders and ankles are struggling to keep up.
Although the overall strength and thickness of our cartilage is predominantly determined by genetics, lifestyle plays a critical role in joint pain. “Maintaining a healthy weight and moderate exercise level are the keys to healthy cartilage,” says Dr. Carroll. To prevent or stave off joint disease, he recommends core strengthening and balance exercises and maintaining muscle and flexibility around the joints. Plus, you have to listen to your body when you hurt. “The old adage “no pain no gain’ doesn’t apply to osteoarthritis,” he adds.
Dr. Carroll continues, “If you can’t participate in normal activities like grocery shopping, if you have swelling and/or popping in your joints, or if you’ve had consistent joint pain for more than a week, it’s time to see your doctor.” If you are diagnosed with osteoarthritis, he or she will likely start with conservative measures such as prescribing anti-inflammatory medications (Voltaren gel or Ibuprofen), support or corrective braces, physical therapy, steroid injections or hyaluronic acid injections (which is a lubricant).
If the pain persists due to osteoarthritis, you may be a candidate for joint replacement surgery. “These have a very high success rate and can really improve quality of life long-term,” says Dr. Carroll.