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What are the top 10 most common causes of osteoarthritis?

11th October 2017

Osteoarthritis, or OA, is a degenerative joint condition that affects over 8 million people in the UK. This disease is the most common form of arthritis, and is particularly prevalent amongst the older population. Affecting the cartilage in a joint, osteoarthritis can result in pain, stiffness and reduced mobility.

Joint cartilage is the hard and slippery tissue covering the bone ends, where they meet to form a joint. Healthy cartilage tissue allows your bones to glide smoothly over one another as you move and to absorb shock as you perform physical activity. In osteoarthritis, this cartilage wears away and breaks down, resulting in the joints no longer being well cushioned. Instead of them moving freely and smoothly, they meet with friction, causing inflammation, stiffness and pain.

Over time, the joint may become deformed and small bony deposits, called bone spurs or osteophytes, may develop on the sides of the joint. Bits of cartilage or bone may break off and float around inside the synovial fluid of the joint. This can lead to further damage and pain.

Comparison of a normal knee compared to an osteoarthritis knee

Symptoms of osteoarthritis

Typical symptoms of this disease include pain, swelling, tenderness, limited range of motion, joint instability, local inflammation, enlargement of the joint, joint deformity and malalignment, and crepitus, a creaking, grinding sensation in the joint.

Many of the causes of osteoarthritis are beyond our control, but there are certain lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your risk of developing this disease. Here we look at the top 10 causes of osteoarthritis and how they impact on the patient. We also look at what changes can be made where possible, to reduce your risk of developing osteoarthritis.

Age

The most common cause for developing OA is getting older. As we age, our joints degenerate and general wear and tear erodes the joint cartilage. Our muscles tend to weaken, possibly due to a less active lifestyle, and our bodies are less able to heal themselves. While OA generally starts from age 40 upwards, it can affect people of any age. Most people show symptoms of osteoarthritis by the time they are 70 years old. It is important to note that the majority of cases of osteoarthritis seen in younger people are the result of joint trauma (such as damage to the anterior cruciate ligament). Whilst getting older is something none of us can avoid, by leading a healthy and active lifestyle, it is possible to reduce the likelihood of developing this disease, or at least stave it off for longer.

Gender

For most joints, especially the hands and knees, osteoarthritis is more severe and more common in women than men. Until the age of around 55, both women and men are affected in equal numbers, but after this age, the disease becomes more common in women. This may be due to hormonal changes amongst post-menopausal women.

Again, there is nothing you can do to alter this factor, but being aware of contributing factors to the development of the disease will put you in a better position to recognise early symptoms and gain an early diagnosis.

Family genetics

Osteoarthritis tends to run in the family, especially genetic joint defects. You are at greater risk of developing the disease if your mother, father, grandparents or even siblings have the condition. Nodal osteoarthritis runs strongly in families, particularly affecting middle aged women’s hands. The genes involved in this are not known. Some rare forms of OA that develop at an earlier age have been linked to genes that affect collagen, an essential component of cartilage. With regards to the knee and hip joints, genetic factors play a smaller part, although they are still of some importance.

If you are going to visit your GP, first check with your family to see if any of them suffer or have suffered from joint pain, as this information is very useful for your doctor. Diagnosis of OA relies heavily on both medical history and a physical examination, so any relevant familial information is extremely useful to them, and to the planning of an appropriate treatment programme for you.

Obesity

While osteoarthritis affects people of every gender, age and size, your risk of developing this disease increases if you are overweight. The excess body weight that you carry around places additional stress on your body’s joints. This is particularly relevant to your knee, hip and back joints that are load bearing. If you are concerned about your risk or you are experiencing any joint pain, speak to your GP about an appropriate weight loss plan.

Occupation

In some cases, your occupation or even favourite hobby can lead to osteoarthritis. As this is known as a wear and tear condition, repetitive strain on your joints can cause a premature wearing down of the cartilage. People who repetitively complete the same movements and activities in their jobs for long durations at a time may be more susceptible to developing joint stiffness and pain. Activities include physical labour, squatting, kneeling and climbing stairs. The most commonly affected joints caused by occupational related osteoarthritis include the hips, knees and hands.

Consider a change in job or role within your company, if you are experiencing joint pain. While this may not be practical or easy, speeding up the development of osteoarthritis is certainly not something to take lightly.

Sports injuries

The trauma caused by a sports injury can lead to osteoarthritis in adults of all ages. Common sporting injuries that can lead to OA include dislocated joints, torn cartilage and ligament injuries. One of the most problematic and common sporting injuries is anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears and strains to the knee joint. These have been medically linked to an increased risk of developing the disease at a later stage in life, according to a study published in the Open Orthopaedics Journal. If you suffer from a sports injury to a joint, it is important to have it diagnosed quickly and to follow a treatment plan as directed by your medical team, to give it the best chance of healing well and reducing its level of vulnerability.

Joint abnormalities

People born with joint abnormalities, or who develop them in childhood, can find that they lead to earlier and possibly more severe osteoarthritis than normal. An example of this is the rare childhood condition, Perthes’ disease of the hip joint, where a reduced supply of blood occurs to the femoral head - the rounded top of the femur or thigh bone, causing pain and a possible limp.

Bleeding

Certain medical conditions can cause bleeding near a joint. This can cause osteoarthritis to worsen or new symptoms to develop. Haemophilia, a bleeding disorder, or avascular necrosis, death of bone tissue caused by lack of blood supply, are conditions that can lead to the development of osteoarthritis, or make the condition worse if already diagnosed.

Other joint diseases

Sometimes osteoarthritis can develop as a direct result of damage created from a different type of joint disease, such as gout, costochondritis or rheumatoid arthritis. In gout, uric acid crystals can cause degeneration of the cartilage at a faster pace.

Other conditions

It is not just joint diseases that can increase your risk of developing osteoarthritis. Many other conditions can have a contributory effect too. For example, having diabetes doubles your risk of needing a joint replacement due to osteoarthritis, and those with diabetes may need a joint replacement at a significantly younger age than those people without diabetes.

Other conditions that can speed up or cause an earlier onset of osteoarthritis include rare genetic conditions such as Alkaptonuria, also known as black bone disease or black urine disease, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS), Wilson’s disease, hereditary haemochromatosis, and Marfan syndrome (MFS).

If you are experiencing joint pain or you are concerned with your level of risk factors for developing this degenerative disease, see your doctor as soon as possible for an appropriate treatment plan. While osteoarthritis is a long-term, progressive condition without cure, early diagnosis and treatment can mean less time experiencing pain and stiffness, and more time living life to the full.

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