What is Arthritis?
“Arthritis” is a broad term referring to any significant inflammation of the joints. On its own, a diagnosis of arthritis doesn’t tell us much, other than that the patient is suffering swelling and pain in a specific joint. There are more than 100 distinct types of arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis, gout, and fibromyalgia. This article will look at one specific type: osteoarthritis.
Sometimes known as degenerative joint disease, osteoarthritis develops when the bones forming a joint are no longer sufficiently cushioned by fluid and cartilage. This may be due to injury or simply the effects of age. Whatever the underlying cause, when bones begin to rub against each other, the entire joint can become inflamed, swollen, and painful.
Most cases of osteoarthritis are caused by damage to the joint’s cartilage. Cartilage is the tough, rubbery tissue responsible for the shape of our ears and our noses. In joints, it acts as a cushion that prevents bones from grinding against each other when the joint moves, and as a shock absorber that prevents one bone from slamming directly against another (such as in your knee joint when walking or running). Cartilage naturally takes some wear and tear, and the body can repair minor damage to most cartilage. But when cartilage is completely torn or lost altogether, the body cannot grow new tissue to replace it.
Cartilage is tough, but over time it naturally wears down. Most serious damage to cartilage happens as a result of age, not of injury, and most cases of osteoarthritis follow suit. These cases are examples of primary arthritis, a generalized condition that largely affects the spine, knees, hips, and hands. When cartilage is damaged because of injury or an underlying medical condition, it is referred to as secondary arthritis, a localized condition.
Causes of Osteoarthritis in the Hip Joint
The basic cause of osteoarthritis in the hip joint—cartilage damage—is well known, but the exact factors leading to such damage are less clear.
Age is certainly one factor: more time on the joint invites more wear and tear, and our bodies naturally become less adept at repairing routine damage as we age. Chronically overstressing the joint, whether through weight training, intense exercise, or simply being overweight, is another major factor; injuries, even those suffered years earlier, can also lead to osteoarthritis. In rare cases, the joint does not develop properly in childhood, and genetic factors may cause some people’s cartilage to wear down more easily than most.
These causes also point to the best preventive measures against osteoarthritis. Maintaining a healthy weight keeps cartilage from bearing undue stress, and getting plenty of moderate exercises strengthens the entire joint, allowing muscles and connective tissue to contribute to cartilage’s shock-absorbing function.
Diagnosing Osteoarthritis of the Hip
When osteoarthritis first begins to affect the hip, it may be difficult to diagnose. So many nerves run through or around the hip that pain may be registered in surrounding areas, even as far away as the knees. Stiffness in the hip often accompanies the pain, and eventually, the patient will find it difficult to walk.
Formal diagnosis of osteoarthritis requires an x-ray. Because osteoarthritis manifests itself in various ways, an x-ray is also the first step toward effective treatment.
Treating Osteoarthritis of the Hip
When osteoarthritis is diagnosed early enough, treatment consists largely of restoring as much mobility to the hip as possible and mitigating any obvious causes of the original problem. Because pain is usually the first symptom noticed by patients, pain management often accompanies treatment.
Resting the joint, as humble as that sounds, is the basis for early treatment of osteoarthritis. This gives the body its best chance to heal underlying damage and naturally restore joint function. Rest may involve using a cane or walker.
More active treatments include weight loss and exercise. Weight loss addresses a major contributing factor to osteoarthritis of the hip, and carefully moderated exercise can help restore mobility and encourage the body’s natural healing functions.
Pain relief is especially important when exercise is part of the treatment plan. Simple over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen may be enough, though many patients benefit from anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen. Doctors often prescribe stronger analgesics, especially for more advanced cases of osteoarthritis. To complement these approaches, many patients use non-drug pain-relief methods such as meditation.
When osteoarthritis is too advanced, surgery may be the most compelling option.
Hip Replacement Surgery
Hip replacement surgery is a major procedure, but essentially straightforward. The bone most commonly and severely affected by osteoarthritis of the hip is the ball-like extension rising from the top of the femur. Hip replacement surgery replaces this ball with a metal one and lines the corresponding socket with metal reinforcement and smooth plastic surface.
This lining, also called hip resurfacing, is sometimes performed without replacing the ball, which is then covered with a protective metal cap.