Osteoarthritis (OA) is among the most common forms of arthritis in the United States. Also known as degenerative joint disease, it starts with a breakdown of joint cartilage that results in pain and stiffness.

Among the upper body joints, it most frequently affects the fingers. Nearly 90 percent of women and 80 percent of men between the ages of 75 and 79 have X-ray evidence of osteoarthritis in their hands.

Though less frequently, it also affects the wrists, elbows and shoulders. When found in these joints, there is generally a history of injury or extreme stress to the joint. Repetitive work-related injury and physical trauma can contribute to the development of OA as well.

While the specific cause of OA is unknown, it is believed that repetitive stress and history of injury weakness and begins to tear down the cartilage that helps cushion the bones in the joint, and the process of joint degeneration begins.

OA is a less aggressive form of arthritis than Rheumatoid. It progresses slowly. Early signs include joint ache following physical activity or a work out.

Other symptoms associated with OA include: swelling and tenderness in the joint, stiffness following periods of inactivity, pain and inflammation in the joint, and possible feeling or sound of bone rubbing on bone, or crunching, when the joint is use.

Though OA can begin when young, it generally occurs in older adults. OA is more often diagnosed in men before the age of 45 and in women after the age of 45. Some risk factors include a history of joint injury or repeated stress, a double-jointed ability, and a genetic defect affecting cartilage health.

If experiencing joint pain, stiffness and/or swelling in excess of two weeks, a medical consult is advised.

After assessing a patient’s history and a physical examination, an X-ray may help show the degree of joint damage. And a series of X-rays can help determine the rate of progression. Joint aspiration, which is the removal of synovial fluid from the affected joint, may also assist in diagnosis.

Treatment is determined based on the affect OA has had on a patient’s joints at the time of diagnosis, as well as the type of joint affected. It may involve conservative treatment – including anti-inflammatory medications such as aspirin or ibuprofen, refrain from inflammatory activity, cortisone injections, rehabilitation and occupational therapy (particularly when affecting hands and fingers), as well as special bracing of hands and fingers to help support them – reducing pain and preventing deformity.

In more advanced cases joint fusion, or arthrodesis may be indicated in order to eliminate pain by allowing the bones to grow, or fuse, together. While this reduces range of motion, it is successful in eliminating pain and preventing deformity.

Joint replacement, or arthroplasty, is also an option depending on the health of the patient and advanced stage of the disease.

The earlier the diagnosis, the greater the chance of preventing irreversible damage.