Arthritis — or, more specifically, osteoarthritis (OA) — is one of the most common causes of joint pain and stiffness. It primarily affects knees and hips due to their nature as high load-bearing joints; however, it is known to impact nearly every joint in the body including the spine, shoulders, and wrists. Many people diagnosed with OA are told that their X-rays show “bone-on-bone” joint degeneration. This may sound quite scary and even unsolvable without joint replacement, but the current osteoarthritis research may surprise you when it comes to risk factors for pain and the effectiveness of non-surgical interventions.
Let’s use knee OA as an example: according to epidemiological data, over 50% of people with X-ray confirmed OA (loss of the cushioning cartilage that protects the knee joint) do not report experiencing pain, stiffness, or activity limitations. Furthermore, progression of OA severity on X-ray does not correlate with progression of clinical symptoms. In other words, the way someone’s knee looks on an image does not predict how much pain they will have. In fact, it is so common for people older than 30 years old to display OA on an image that practitioners have begun calling the diagnosis “symptomatic knee OA” rather than just “knee OA.” You are more than just your X-ray!
One variable that does predict the amount of pain and disability experienced with OA is one’s activity level. The cartilage that helps protect your joints requires nourishment to stay healthy; this nourishment is supplied in part by the movement of the joint. Every time you take a step or do a squat, protective fluid is forced in and out of your knees and hips. As you move more and more, the joints become healthier as more nutrients are supplied to the tissues. Even if there isn’t much cartilage left (“bone-on-bone”) the lubricating fluid can do its job more effectively when you keep the joints moving. This is the reason many people with OA start to feel better with moderate amounts of exercise!
If pain should occur, numerous research studies have found exercise-based interventions, including physical therapy, to be extremely helpful to manage OA. By increasing muscle strength, improving how well joints are being lubricated, and maximizing the health of the remaining joint cartilage, a rehabilitation program can be quite helpful to those in pain. The most important thing to remember is don’t be afraid to move! If you are experiencing joint pain, contact Harbor Physical Therapy to learn what specific exercises can help improve your symptoms.
Dr. Scott Newberry