How Osteoarthritis Is Diagnosed: A Quick Guide

Osteoarthritis (OA) develops gradually and can take many years to show up. As the years pass, you may become less active, making you more prone to issues linked to inactivity, such as weight gain.

OA is a long-term disorder that causes the gradual disintegration of soft tissue in various joints, such as the knees, hips, and fingers. At the beginning of the illness, your joints may feel normal. However, your gait may be antalgic¹, especially if OA is affecting your weight-bearing joints. Joint inflammation creates structural changes, resulting in discomfort and loss of function.

Several factors contribute to osteoarthritis: genetics, mechanical stress, hormone imbalances, and inflammatory responses to the disease.

OA is a degenerative condition, meaning that symptoms usually develop over time. While it’s increasingly frequent in older people, it’s not entirely correct to claim that their joints are simply "wearing out." OA presents with the disintegration of cartilage, deformities in the joints, degradation of muscles and ligaments, and varying levels of joint lining swelling. Although there is no cure, treatment may reduce pain and inflammation while keeping you active.

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What are the first signs of osteoarthritis?

Although it can be difficult to detect, doctors can prevent OA from causing significant tissue damage if they catch it early. OA starts with wear on the cartilage separating your joints, and inflammation exacerbates it.

The wear-and-tear process causes water loss in the joint, forcing the cartilage to harden over time. Hardened cartilage makes it much harder to move the joint. Cartilage degeneration is a gradual process.

Some people experience arthritis symptoms several years before the illness evolves into a more severe stage. Here are some early symptoms and warning signs of osteoarthritis to look out for:

1. Joint pain

After not moving your joints for a while, you may experience increased soreness and discomfort. Severe joint pain is the most noticeable osteoarthritis symptom, and it’s often one of the first indicators that something is wrong. Early osteoarthritis discomfort falls into two categories: tenderness and pain. Tenderness is the most common symptom of the condition. You may not endure terrible pain, but you may experience pain or discomfort around your joints.

2. Swelling

Joint swelling may range from mild to considerable in severity, and it’s more likely to develop after physical exertion. Your body naturally produces fluid in the joints, and discomfort arises when it accumulates, forcing the joint to expand.

3. Joint stiffness

Joint stiffness is a common symptom often preceding osteoarthritis. You may experience stiffness after sitting or lying for extended periods.

4. Unusual sensations

Cartilage is a shock absorber, allowing your joints to move more freely. When your cartilage starts wearing out, your bones rubbing against one another may cause odd feelings.

5. Losing flexibility

The initial stages of osteoarthritis might make your body parts less mobile than they were. The pain and stiffness further reduce flexibility and range of motion. You may struggle to bend and stretch your joint, making it increasingly difficult for you to carry out everyday tasks.

If you are experiencing these symptoms almost daily, we recommend scheduling a checkup with your doctor. They may carry out tests to determine the source of your pain. The sooner you receive an osteoarthritis diagnosis, the more successful your treatment will be.

Which tests show osteoarthritis?

First, your doctor needs to rule out other reasons for joint discomfort, like bursitis or rheumatoid arthritis. To provide an accurate diagnosis, a healthcare professional may need to do the following:

  • Examine your health records and main symptoms

  • Perform a physical exam, paying special attention to your bones and joints

  • Order lab tests and x-rays

Why does a doctor conduct a health records review?

During a talk about your medical history, your doctor learns essential information about the potential cause of your symptoms. They will ask about your joint pain: when it started, how severe it is, what tasks make it better or worse, and whether you have any other symptoms. You may also discuss your family background and your daily activities.

To make an accurate diagnosis, detailed questioning and honest responses are essential. This medical review may affect your treatment options.

Will osteoarthritis show up on an x-ray?

To examine what's going on under the surface, your doctor will likely request diagnostic imaging, such as an x-ray or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Your doctor can confirm knee osteoarthritis using an x-ray as it shows the bones in your joints. They will be able to see if you have bone spurs, which occur when bones rub against one another.

Furthermore, an x-ray may reveal if your joint space is restricted, a symptom that you've lost cartilage. Your doctor must do the x-rays when you are standing up since this is the most precise way to measure lost joint space.

Your doctor may also do an MRI test. The MRI image depicts the joint's soft tissues, and it’s particularly useful for detecting how much cartilage has worn away. Often, conventional x-rays are enough, and an MRI is not required.

Some people have OA indicators on medical imaging tests even while symptomless. Your doctor must combine medical imaging, health records, and a physical exam to diagnose you.

When should you see a doctor for osteoarthritis?

Your medical practitioner is the only one who can determine if OA is causing your symptoms. It's important to have a proper diagnosis from a doctor so you can get the appropriate help.

If your joints are uncomfortably hot, reddish, or inflamed, you should consult a doctor as soon as possible. These symptoms show joint inflammation. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, your doctor may drain any accumulated fluid in your joint. They will analyze the fluid to determine the source of the pain and administer a steroid injection to relieve your symptoms where necessary.

Don’t postpone a checkup on your symptoms for joint disorders like osteoarthritis. Your doctor can help you avoid permanent joint injury and other major health complications. Remember, joint problems are more likely to appear gradually rather than abruptly.

When the symptoms of osteoarthritis begin to interfere with your everyday activities, it's important to take action and consult your primary care practitioner. Arthritis is sometimes a tricky diagnosis, so they may refer you to a specialist who knows how to diagnose osteoarthritis.

Rheumatologists specialize in disorders affecting the bones, muscles, and joints. They are well-versed in making challenging diagnoses and treating all forms of arthritis, particularly those needing extensive therapy. If you have degenerative arthritis, your doctor may recommend seeing an orthopedist.

The lowdown

Osteoarthritis is a condition that causes the deterioration of joints, presenting as soreness and discomfort in the affected joints. It’s more likely to appear throughout middle age or later in life. Osteoarthritis is hard to diagnose, but knowing the warning signs and acting on them may significantly improve your treatment plan and everyday life.

If you have any of the above symptoms, speak to your healthcare professional. Your practitioner may evaluate you and arrange tests to confirm or eliminate a diagnosis. Joint pain and other signs of osteoarthritis may be manageable without surgery, particularly with early-stage detection. For effective symptom reduction, most cases need a mix of therapies.

Have you considered clinical trials for Osteoarthritis?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Osteoarthritis, and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

Joining community groups and exercise programs for my condition made me feel empowered – but I want to be part of finding a cure.
Peter, 64


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