Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis that affects about 27 million people in the United States. It is characterized by the deterioration or roughening of the protective cartilage on the ends of your bones. Such wear and tear occurs over time and ultimately causes the bones to rub against each other causing pain, stiffness and limited movement. In addition, the condition can damage ligaments, menisci and muscles. Although there is no cure for osteoarthritis, there are treatments that can slow down its progression, improve joint function and relieve pain.

Many people suffer from joint pain and reduced mobility, but how can you be sure that such joint pain and weakness are the effects of osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, and not another health issue?

The first step is to talk honestly with your doctor about your joint pain and loss of strength or mobility. Your doctor will follow up with what may seem to be a barrage of questions to gather more information in order to make an osteoarthritis diagnosis. You will be asked about your medical history and that of your family and go through a physical exam and possibly additional testing.

During your appointment, be prepared to answer questions such as: Which joints hurt and for how long have they been bothering you?, When does the pain occur?, Do you experience joint stiffness and if so, when?, Do your joints ever lock or give out?

During the physical exam, your doctor will press on your joints and move them in various directions, listen for various sounds like clicking or grating during movement and look for joints that may be swollen or deformed.

Some cases may call for x-rays and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to accurately diagnose osteoarthritis. To rule out other possible causes of joint pain, your doctor may also request blood tests or opt to draw fluid from a joint, known as arthrocentesis, for examination.

Usually, your primary care doctor is able to help you manage your osteoarthritis but, if necessary, can refer you to an osteoarthritis specialist, such as a rheumatologist, orthopedic surgeon or physiatrist.

If you have decided to see your doctor because you think you may have osteoarthritis, you should know that the most important parts of the diagnostic process are the history and physical exam. It might be a good idea to bring notes about your symptoms: when they come, when they go, what they feel like, and so on.

Because the effects and progression of osteoarthritis can be managed, talking honestly with your doctor early on is the best way to minimize the pain and limitations of osteoarthritis. If you ever experience stiffness or swelling in your joints that last for more than a few weeks, it may be time to make an appointment with your doctor.

By Lora Incardona