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Osteoarthritis (OA), a condition that makes joints painful and stiff, can affect any joint in the body. The most commonly affected joints tend to be load-bearing joints such as knees and hips, as well as joints in the hands. Typically OA symptoms present in one or two joints but it is not uncommon to suffer symptoms in multiple sites.
Osteoarthritis signs and symptoms can come and go sporadically and with varying degrees of severity. Episodes can be linked to external factors such as the weather. You may notice that particularly damp weather or drops in atmospheric pressure just before it rains can make symptoms worse. Or you may find that activity levels can have an adverse affect, although it is also the case that increasing activity can alleviate the symptoms for others. At the more extreme end of the spectrum, OA symptoms can be continuous.
Curiously, the severity of the symptoms is not always directly linked to the level of damage to the joint. A small amount of damage can result in worse pain and mobility issues than those with joints with greater damage.
For all those experiencing osteoarthritis symptoms, daily tasks can be harder to perform. Climbing up and going down the stairs, getting up from a chair or simply sleeping can be adversely affected.
There are several key osteoarthritis signs and symptoms, as well as the more common pain and stiffness:
The most common of osteoarthritis symptoms, particularly osteoarthritis knee symptoms, is pain. The level of pain may fluctuate, coming and going depending on your own personal situation. For some there may be continual low level pain, with some periods of severe pain. You may find the pain a dull ache, while others experience it as a much sharper or piercing sensation.
You may also find that the affected site can be more painful after too much activity or exacerbated by specific movements. Those experiencing osteoarthritis knee symptoms often report walking up stairs or squatting makes the joint more painful. This is due to additional strain these activities place up on the joint. Those with more severe cases may experience pain even when the joints are at rest or when moving scarcely at all.
The pain is a result of change to the cartilage inside the joint. There are no nerves inside the cartilage itself but damage to the cartilage means the bones inside the joints can rub together, causing pain. The bones themselves can also change, again causing pain.
After a prolonged period of rest or being still in one position, you may experience stiffness in the affected joints. Stiffness is usually most pronounced after waking up and getting out of bed, or perhaps a long car or plane journey. This stiffness should dissipate once you start moving around and movement becomes easier with light activity. The stiffness is caused by friction between the bones and for those suffering OA of the knee, swelling in the joint.
Swelling can occur in the affected joint in two different forms. Hard swelling presents as bony or knobbly lumps or spurs that grow upon and around the joints and is caused by osteophytes. Soft swelling is caused by the joint lining becoming thicker and extra fluid inside the joint itself. Conversely, this swelling can make the muscles appear thin and wasted. The weakening of the muscle or stability of the joint can cause the joint to give way.
The affected joint may be sore to touch or when applying slight pressure.
Redness and warmth
The skin over the affected joint may become red and warm. This could be due to an infection which would require immediate medical attention.
Grinding, grating or creaking
You may find that there is a grating sensation or a crackling sound when you move the affected joints. This is known as crepitus or crepitation. Crepitus is due to a degeneration in the cartilage, meaning the joint is no longer properly protected against impact or friction leaving the bones to grind against each other. It is worth noting that crepitus without any other symptoms, is not something to be concerned about.
The buckling or locking up of the joint
When OA is moderate to advanced you may find that it feels like the knee gives way, or buckles. This happens when uneven grooves in the damaged cartilage become detached and stuck in the joint.
Lack of movement
The cumulative effect of one or more of these symptoms can result in difficulty moving your joints freely and a decline in overall mobility. If you’re suffering from osteoarthritis knee symptoms, this may result in you being more inflexible and unable to fully bend or straighten the joint.
It is no surprise that the knee joint can be affected by OA, given the stresses involved for a load-bearing joint: the need to support body weight and the twists and turns of movement. However, other joints can also be directly as well as indirectly affected.
You may find that OA pain is referred to other parts of the body, for example OA in the hip could lead to pain in the knee, or OA in the spine could affect nerves causing numbness, pain or other symptoms in parts of the body to which those nerves connect. OA of the hip or knee can make walking very painful. To accommodate the discomfort the sufferer may develop a limp and painful sensations may be felt in the groin, thigh or buttocks. Again ranging from dull aches to piercing pain.
The symptoms in other joints are very similar to knee symptoms of osteoarthritis:
OA of the hip is commonplace in both or just one hip and in both men and women. It usually presents as an ache in the front of the groin which may extend to the thigh. It can also present in the side of the hip, the back of the thigh or buttocks. As a ball and socket joint it should have a wide-range of movement but is also load-bearing so the pain can be exacerbated by weight bearing activities such as walking, jogging or standing, gardening, some sports or even just putting shoes on or rising up from a seat.
Hands and wrists can be affected, usually due to nodal osteoarthritis. Typically women suffer more from this type of OA, usually around the onset of menopause. The base of the thumb and the joints at the end of fingers are the most affected. A weaker grip is usually caused by OA in the thumb, middle, ring and little fingers while a weaker pinch is due to OA in the thumb and index finger. Pinching or gripping actions, like squeezing toothpaste or picking up a coin are where this type of OA typically presents. OA in the wrist can make hand grip weaker and cause numbness and tingling in the thumb, index and middle fingers.
OA in the hand can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome which can lead to nerve damage if treatment isn’t sought.
Feet and ankles
Like the base of the thumb, the joint at the base of the big toe is most commonly affected by OA. It is also not unusual to get OA mid-foot while the ankle isn’t typically affected.
Where the upper arm and shoulder blade meet, or the glenohumeral joint and the acromioclavicular joint, where the collarbone and shoulder blade meet, can both be adversely affected by OA. OA in these joints presents when you reach your arm across your body, causing either deep pain at the back of the shoulder or where the clavicle and scapula meet. Specific actions such as putting on a seat belt in the car or swinging a golf club or lifting a dish from a kitchen cupboard, can cause pain or be difficult.
It isn’t very common to suffer from OA in the elbow. Typically OA of the elbow is brought on by a single trauma to the area or multiple minor injuries.
As one of the joints used most often, the cartilage in the jaw is very vulnerable to wear and tear. Issues in the jaw can start earlier than in other areas.
Osteoarthritis signs and symptoms typically progress gradually. If you experience sudden pain, it is more likely that it is due to trauma or another condition affecting the joint. If you have OA of the knee, it can be dormant and only appear after trauma or physical activity over and above what is usual for you.
If any of these symptoms persist, you should speak to your GP so that they can examine the joint and determine the best course of action. An early diagnosis and treatment can slow or even stop the progression of OA symptoms.
You may find the following information useful:
- Unloader One & Osteoarthritis: A page and video offering a greater understanding of osteoarthritis of the knee using diagrams and animations.