In a joint, soft tissue called cartilage cover the bones at the ends. They help the bones glide over each other allowing the normal function of the joints. They also help absorb shock. When this cartilage wears down the joints do not move smoothly as they are meant to. This degeneration of cartilage leads to osteoarthritis. Affected joints will be painful, tender, swollen or red. The range of motion will also be affected.
The tissues in the joint sometimes go into overdrive trying to fix the damage. Some changes that might happen include development of osteophytes or bony spurs at the edge of the joint, the synovium that produces synovial fluid might thicken and produce extra fluid, the ligaments that hold the joint together might toughen trying to make the joint more stable.
When osteoarthritis becomes severe, the cartilage wears down to a very thin layer. The bones might start to rub against each other, thickening and creating more pain. The bones might get forced out of their normal position and might even change the shape of the affected joint.
Osteoarthritis usually affects aged persons. In younger individuals, joint injuries (repetitive movement at work or sports injuries) might cause osteoarthritis. Being overweight can also out pressure on the joints and lead to osteoarthritis.
Diagnosing the condition can involve taking a medical history, physical examination and diagnostic tests.
Medical history is examined to note family history, symptoms, location of pain or difficulty, kind of discomfort experienced, details about when or how the discomfort is experienced, current diet and medication, daily activities and work, etc. Patient might indicate stiffness in the joints when getting up after sitting or lying down for a while; or a sound in the joints when moving it; or tenderness when walking or when shifting weight.
When the doctor physically examines you, they will check how well you can move the affected joint. This will give an idea of the range of movement possible in the current situation, and when the pain or discomfort is experienced. The doctor will check for joint damage, alignment, pain, swelling, etc.
An X-ray is a diagnostic tool that will be used to check changes in the joint. Joint damages can be seen using an X-ray. Bony spurs or narrowing of the space in the joint will be visible on an X-ray. An MRI will provide more insight as it gives better images of the joint and abnormalities within. It can show soft tissues that X-rays can’t. Rarely, the doctor might perform a joint aspiration. A needle might be inserted into the joint after numbing it, to draw out joint fluid. This is checked to assess the health of the joint and to rule out other medical conditions like gout.