An epidemic of osteoarthritis may be on the horizon. Prevalence of this joint disease increases with age - and there is a huge wave of baby boomers heading into their golden years. By the year 2030, about one in five Americans will have celebrated their 65th birthday and be at high risk for the disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in every two people will get osteoarthritis at some point in their lifetime.
“Start now taking better care of your joints,” urged David Curtis, MD. A board certified rheumatologist at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco (CPMC), he is specially trained to identify the cause of joint pain and develop individualized treatments. “Osteoarthritis responds best to treatment in the early stages of the disease. It is important to get an accurate diagnosis as soon as possible.”
Also known as "wear and tear" arthritis, osteoarthritis is a leading cause of disability among older adults in the U.S. It can strike in almost any joint inside the body, but typically affects the knees, hips, spine and hands. The disease occurs when cartilage, the slippery coating on the ends of bones, breaks down. As that cushioning wears away, bone rubs against bone, causing pain and stiffness. Movement of the joint may eventually become limited and produce a crackling or grinding sound.
“Symptoms of osteoarthritis usually begin gradually and get worse with age,” explained Dr. Curtis. “By the time they do occur, changes in the joint may have already reached an advanced stage.”
More common in women than men, osteoarthritis typically occurs after age 45, but can be triggered earlier and progress more quickly if you experience an injury to the joint. Hereditary conditions, like malformed joints or defective cartilage, may make you more susceptible to the disease. “Disability from osteoarthritis is common, especially among seniors, but it isn’t an inevitable condition. There are risk factors within your control,” said Dr. Curtis.
According to the CDC, lifestyle and behavioral changes early on can offer most people with osteoarthritis the best chance at avoiding or limiting disability. Managing your weight nears the top of the list. Every extra pound of fat on your frame puts a greater load on the joints and exacerbates the disease process once it starts.
The Arthritis Foundation stresses the importance of regular, moderate exercise, citing evidence that it can reduce pain and stiffness caused by osteoarthritis. Because repetitive stress on joints for long periods of time can cause the excessive wear and tear that can lead to cartilage degeneration, the organization recommends a variety of low-impact physical activities such as stretching, bicycling, walking and water aerobics.
While there are promising stem cell therapies being explored by researchers, there is currently no cure for osteoarthritis.
“The goal of treatment is to slow progression of the disease and reduce pain so people can maintain their independence and continue doing the things they love,” said Dr. Curtis.
In addition to self-care approaches, treatment may include a combination of non-steroidal inflammatory drugs, joint injections and topical therapies. Physical therapy is often prescribed as well.
“Rehabilitation exercises can strengthen muscles surrounding the joint, which can reduce the load on the affected joint and decrease further damage to the cartilage,” said Dr. Curtis. “Physical therapists can help patients navigate their limitations and live at their highest possible level of function.”
Dr. Curtis collaborates with licensed professionals specially trained in musculoskeletal dysfunctions at our California Pacific Regional Rehabilitation Center.
“With many forms of arthritis, there needs to be a team approach to care,” said Dr. Curtis. “For many of our patients, the rehabilitation services at CPMC are a critical part of treatment.”