Osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative joint disease, causes the breakdown of joints in the body. For many people, the disease progresses over time to affect several joints at once. The Arthritis Foundation estimates that osteoarthritis affects 33 million people in the United States. While treatments exist to reduce pain and slow progression of the disease, there is no cure. Over time, the effects of osteoarthritis can be severe enough to interfere with everyday living and physical activities.
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Cartilage is a firm, elastic tissue that pads the space between bone ends that form a joint. This tissue allows joint bones to glide during movement and prevents bones from rubbing together and wearing down. Osteoarthritis causes the breakdown of cartilage and commonly affects joints in the hands, wrists, knees, hips and spine. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons explains that without cartilage for padding, joint bones rub directly against each other, causing bone ends to become rough and damaged.
Over time, nodules, or bumps, can form on joints affected by osteoarthritis that make movement difficult. Small pieces of bone ends may break and wedge in affected joints, and joints can become extremely weak and difficult to move. A joint may lose its original shape as bone ends continue to wear down, causing joint disfiguration and reduced function.
Pain is common with osteoarthritis. Joints without cartilage to pad them become inflamed and sore. A basic movement such as flexing the fingers to grab an item can bring pain and makes movement difficult. Pain may be worse in the morning, and vigorous physical exercise may make pain worse.
For some, joint pain begins as mild and progresses as the disease gets worse. Some people, however, may have constant, ongoing throbbing or nagging pain in joints affected by osteoarthritis.
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, osteoarthritis is a leading cause of physical disability among adults. Osteoarthritis is a progressive disease, meaning it will slowly get worse over time. Those who develop severe osteoarthritis will likely experience physical disability or limitations as body joints begin to work less effectively.