Forget an achy, breaky heart (shout-out to Billy Ray Cyrus). How about those creaky, cranky knees or those squeaky, sore shoulders? Those aches, pains and alarming sound effects are probably caused by osteoarthritis (OA), the condition your grandmother called, simply, arthritis.
The most common type of degenerative joint disease, osteoarthritis generally affects the knees, shoulders, wrists and hips. It is essentially the result of wear and tear, and should not be confused with rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that is the second most common type of arthritis. “Osteoarthritis has multiple causes, including joint trauma, repetitive motion and recurrent minor damage to a joint,” says John Hardin, MD, a rheumatologist and chief scientific officer for the Arthritis Foundation. Genetics also play a role, and people who are overweight are particularly susceptible.
Osteoarthritis sets in when the cartilage that cushions the ends of your bones thins or wears away. Healthy cartilage allows bones to slide smoothly over each other. Without enough cartilage, or with none at all, bones in the joint rub together, causing pain and stiffness. Osteoarthritis affects some 27 million American adults — more women than men. Menopausal women are particularly vulnerable, but the role of hormones isn’t yet clear.
Despite what you may have heard, osteoarthritis is not an inevitable part of growing older. And if you do develop osteoarthritis, it doesn’t mean you have to crawl into bed and suffer. Quite the opposite, in fact — the Arthritis Foundation urges patients to think of the pain as a signal to take positive action. Diet, exercise and mind-body techniques can help you take control of your condition.