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The Causes of Osteoarthritis

Learn Which Risk Factors You Can Control
  -- By Becky Hand, Licensed & Registered Dietitian & Nicole Nichols, Health Educator
Osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, is a major health problem affecting an estimated 21 million adults in the United States alone. Osteoarthritis begins with the breakdown of joint cartilage which results in pain, stiffness, swelling and tenderness. The joints of the fingers, spine, hips and knees, are most often affected, but osteoarthritis can also affect the shoulders, elbows, wrists and ankles.

Although the exact cause of osteoarthritis is not known, some experts believe that joint damage occurs as a response to physical stress (such as injury or repetitive movement). This wear and tear can erode the cartilage, which serves to cushion the ends of the bones in a joint and helps the joint move smoothly and easily. As the cartilage breaks down, the ends of the bones thicken and the joint may lose its normal shape. Eventually, the ends of the bones begin to rub together causing pain and tenderness. The damaged joint tissue can cause the release of substances called "prostaglandins," which further contribute to the pain and swelling associated with osteoarthritis.

There are two main categories of risks that can contribute to osteoarthritis—those that you can't change, and those that you can.<pagebreak>

Uncontrollable Risk Factors
These variables are out of your control. Although you can't do anything to change them, it's important to know whether you fall into any of these higher-risk categories. While you can’t change things like family history or previous injuries, you can control certain factors related to your lifestyle—the choices you make each day about what to eat and how to care for yourself. These are areas of your life where you can take proactive steps to help prevent and treat osteoarthritis and enhance your overall health.<pagebreak>

Controllable Risk Factors If you experience joint pain, stiffness and/or swelling for more than two weeks, make an appointment to see your doctor, as early diagnosis can help minimize the pain and disability of osteoarthritis. The two of you can develop a plan that includes a combination of diet and exercise changes, weight loss, physical therapy, and medication.