Osteoarthritis — the most common type of arthritis that can affect you as you age or after an injury — happens when erosion or damage occurs in a special type of cartilage called articular cartilage. This cartilage caps the ends of bones coming together to form joints. The result is often significant pain when you try to enjoy daily activities.
"It's extremely smooth — smoother than glass," said Scottsdale orthopedic surgeon Brian Miller, MD, an independent member of the HonorHealth medical staff. "The smoothness of it and the joint fluid inside of it are what allow joints to last for the better part of a lifetime."
What can lead to cartilage damage and osteoarthritis?
Key risk factors for cartilage degeneration include:
- Older age.
- Female gender.
- Previous injury.
Preventing or minimizing joint pain
When articulated cartilage is damaged through injury or wears away over time, the rougher surface left behind between the bones can lead to increasing stiffness and pain, most frequently in your hips and knees.
Depending on the severity of damage to the cartilage or how worn away it is, it's not unusual for the pain to progress quickly over just a matter of months, Dr. Miller said.
"The most common sign of arthritis in the hip is pain from standing up or engaging in many other daily activities, including putting on shoes and socks and walking," said Dr. Miller. "The pain occurs most commonly in the groin and buttocks but may present on the side of your hip or the front of your thigh."
Arthritis in the knee can show up as pain in the knee joint while climbing stairs or walking, he added.
As soon as you notice ongoing joint-related pain, it's probably a good idea to consult an orthopedic surgeon. Steps a doctor may recommend to reduce the chances of arthritis increasing within a joint include:
- Weight loss.
- Low-impact activity such as swimming.
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs such as ibuprofen or naproxen).
- Physical therapy to strengthen your muscles and ease joint pain.
- Injections of either steroids or hyaluronic acid to relieve joint pain.
- Use of a cane to take weight off the joint.
"Weight loss can be very helpful in addressing joint pain," Dr. Miller emphasized. "When you go up a step, your hips and knees experience up to five times your actual body weight. So if you lose 20 pounds, your knees and hips are going to think you lost 100 pounds."
When joint replacement may be necessary
When hip or knee pain is so severe that it interferes with your daily activities, or you can no longer stay active because of it, an orthopedic surgeon can evaluate if you're a candidate for joint replacement surgery.
"Joint replacement is one of the most successful operations in medicine," Dr. Miller said.
Once you have a hip or knee replacement, you won't get arthritis in the replaced joints again. Dr. Miller noted, "We take out any remaining cartilage and replace it and the rest of the joint with man-made materials, so arthritis can't affect the joint anymore."
If joint replacement surgery is necessary to restore mobility by eliminating pain, it has the potential to change your life.
"The point of a joint replacement is to relieve pain and get you back to your life," Dr. Miller said. "Being able to stay active improves your entire outlook. If you can stay active and walk three times a week, you'll probably live longer. Walking on a regular basis decreases blood pressure and blood sugar, improves memory, eases depression and builds muscle mass and bone density. In other words, just by walking on a regular basis, you can be smarter, happier, stronger and healthier."