What is Degenerative Joint Disease?

Osteoarthritis, commonly referred to as Degenerative joint disease, is a problem that often affects people in their advancing years and can cause pain and discomfort, as well as reduce a person’s mobility.

In this article, we will describe what causes the disease, the possible symptoms, and how it may be treated.

Degenerative Joint Disease Explained

After receiving a degenerative joint disease diagnosis, it’s common for patients to wonder what the condition entails. With this condition, degeneration usually results from the normal process of aging. This typically begins in middle age with the breakdown of cartilage, which is the rubbery tissue that serves as a cushion between bones and around joints. 

What Is Degenerative Joint Disease?

Degenerative joint disease is a condition involving wear and tear on the joints. It’s the most common joint disorder and may also be referred to as osteoarthritis. 

Osteoarthritis is frequently seen in the joints of the spinal column due to the many stresses and strains put on these joints. These stresses gradually wear down the cartilage that protects these joints, leading to increased friction with daily motions. This friction causes inflammation, pain, and stiffness.  

What Causes Degenerative Joint Disease?

Degeneration in the spine is characterized by a breakdown of the cushion-like spinal discs. This leads to bones rubbing against each other, resulting in pain, stiffness, swelling, reduced motion of the joint, and various other symptoms.

Occupations that involve physically demanding kneeling or squatting can also predispose one to degenerative joint disease. Injury or disease can further contribute to degenerative changes in the affected area later in life. Excessive weight, lack of exercise, smoking, and a poor diet can also exacerbate joint degeneration.

Degenerative Joint Changes

Degenerative joint changes can result from the natural aging process. 

Cartilage protects your joints from impact, facilitates joint flexibility, and improves bone longevity. But, as the body’s collagen levels drop with age, the cartilage becomes weaker and more brittle. With time, this cartilage continues degenerating, tipping the first domino in the chain of degenerative joint changes.  

As cartilage breaks down, the bones that make up a joint start to change. They become stiffer and less flexible. Additionally, the ligaments of a joint generally become shorter and more rigid, further contributing to joint stiffness. 

Increased friction within a joint can lead to the formation of bone spurs. This degenerative joint change occurs when extra bone tissue forms in a joint. This is your body’s attempt to repair the lost cartilage. 

Degenerative Joint Disease Symptoms

Degenerative joint disease symptoms develop as the cartilage in the joints gradually degrades. The symptoms can vary depending on the location of the degeneration and worsen over time.  

What Are the Symptoms of the Degenerative Joint Disease?

The common symptoms of degenerative joint disease are:

  • Pain

Joints that are affected by osteoarthritis may become painful when a person is active, or immediately afterward. The pain may even occur with the simplest of movements, such as standing up or sitting down.

Additionally, the pain will occur around the degenerating joint. For example, if degenerative joint disease affects the joints of the spine, the patient will likely experience persistent pain in the back. 

  • Tender to the touch

The affected joints may be tender to the touch. In advanced cases of degenerative joint disease, patients may experience tenderness even under the lightest of pressure on or around the problem area.

  • Swelling

With degenerative joint disease, the soft tissue around the affected joint can become inflamed. This may lead to visible swelling. 

  • Rigidness

The joints could become stiff, impacting a person’s flexibility and mobility. This will likely occur first thing in the morning or during a long period of sitting still. Patients with degenerative joint disease of the spine may find it difficult to fully straighten, twist, or bend their spines. 

  • The joint is inflexible

You may notice a significant decline in the flexibility of the joint affected by degenerative joint disease. You may no longer be able to move it freely and enjoy a full range of motion. 

  • Grating sensation and abnormal sounds

With degenerative joint disease, you may experience a sensation like grating or grinding while moving. This feeling is often combined with unexpected sounds such as cracking, or popping. These sounds aren’t a problem on their own, but indicate damage within the joint. 

  • Bone spurs

Bone spurs occur when extra bone tissue forms around the affected joint. These portions of bone may feel like hard lumps underneath the skin. In some cases, bone spurs come into contact with nearby nerve roots, leading to pain and even neurological symptoms like numbness, weakness, and tingling. 

What Are My Options to Treat Degenerative Joint Disease?

Several treatment options are available for degenerative joint disease of the spine, including physical therapy, medications, and injections. 

Although the condition cannot be cured, steps can be taken to stop it from worsening and to reduce the symptoms.

Here is a summary of the treatment options available to degenerative joint disease sufferers:

  • Regular exercise

It may seem counterintuitive, but exercise can help patients with degenerative joint disease overcome their symptoms. This is because regular exercise provides natural lubrication to the cartilage of the affected joint. With this lubrication, the arthritic joint becomes less stiff and painful. 

Additionally, exercising regularly promotes higher energy levels, improved sleep quality, and weight management. Given that osteoarthritis pain tends to worsen at night, improved sleep quality can help patients more effectively manage nighttime pain. Additionally, by helping patients reach a healthy weight, an exercise regimen can reduce the impact on the joints with daily activities. 

Of course, not all forms of exercise are beneficial for patients with osteoarthritis. Medical professionals generally recommend that patients opt for low-impact activities, such as walking, swimming, yoga, and biking. 

  • Physical therapy

Physical therapy is a conservative treatment option that’s widely recommended for osteoarthritis patients. For this joint condition, physical therapy mainly involves aerobic and neuromuscular exercise. The goal of aerobic exercise is to improve the patient’s muscle strength and stamina, while neuromuscular exercise focuses on joint stability and function. 

Over time, physical therapy can improve joint pain, increase range of motion, and restore the joint’s function. 

Pain medication and/or steroid injections may be recommended to help patients manage pain from degenerative joint disease. These medications may be available over the counter or with a prescription, depending on the patient’s needs. 

NSAIDs are widely considered to be the best oral medications for osteoarthritis. These drugs offer both anti-inflammatory and painkilling effects. Examples include Advil, Motrin, and Aleve, as well as Voltaren, which is a topical medication. 

In some cases, steroid injections are used to treat degenerative joint disease. With this treatment, the steroid medication is injected directly into the arthritic joint to curb inflammation and pain. Regrettably, steroid injections can lead to tissue damage if they’re used too often, so physicians generally limit patients to three or four shots per year. 

  • A healthy diet to lose weight or prevent future weight gain

When it’s combined with regular exercise, a healthy diet can help you reach an ideal weight and prevent weight gain down the road. This is crucial for osteoarthritis patients because, as we’ve already mentioned, excess weight puts more pressure on the injured joint with every step you take. 

If you’re already making dietary changes to manage your weight with degenerative joint disease, it’s an excellent opportunity to incorporate anti-inflammatory foods into your diet. These foods can help fight inflammation within your body and include:

  • Leafy greens, like spinach and kale
  • Tomatoes
  • Fruits, especially apples, berries, oranges, and cherries
  • Nuts, such as walnuts and almonds
  • Olive oil
  • Fatty fish 

Conversely, it’s in your best interest to avoid foods that encourage inflammation in the body (also known as inflammatory foods), such as:

  • Fried food
  • Refined carbohydrates
  • Processed meat
  • Soda and sugary beverages
  • Lard 
  • Suitable footwear

Your choice of footwear can have a sizable impact on your joint health. So, for patients with degenerative joint disease, it’s particularly important to wear supportive footwear. The wrong choice of shoes could lead to worsened joint pain in the future. 

As general guidelines, look for shoes with significant cushioning and arch support to absorb shock while you walk. The sole should be flexible enough to move with your foot, but not so flexible that it moves out of place. Additionally, avoid high heels, which are arguably the worst shoe type for osteoarthritis.

  • Using a brace, or other devices to reduce the strain on your joints

Some cases of degenerative joint disease benefit from a brace to stabilize and protect the affected joint. Patients with spinal osteoarthritis can consider wearing a back brace, which prevents excessive spinal flexion and compresses the spinal joints. This can help alleviate pain while reducing the risk of further injury. 

  • Spinal decompression surgery

When symptoms of degenerative joint disease persist regardless of conservative treatment or severely compromise the patient’s mobility, physicians may recommend spinal decompression surgery.

Spinal Decompression Surgery

For patients with moderate to severe osteoarthritis that isn’t improved with non-invasive approaches, spinal decompression surgery may provide relief. This procedure reduces the pressure on pinched nerves caused by diminished cushioning within the joint.

During spinal decompression surgery, the surgeon removes the tissue that’s impinging on the spinal nerves. This may involve a portion of the lamina or a bone spur. 

The spinal decompression procedure has historically been performed in tandem with spinal fusion surgery. This approach stabilizes the spine by fusing two vertebrae at the point where the decompression procedure was performed. 

Is There a Better Alternative to Spinal Fusion?

The TOPS™ System provides a clinically proven, superior alternative to spinal fusion by enabling patients to maintain the full range of motion of each vertebra. You may not be able to stop natural degenerative spinal changes, but a range of effective medical options are available to treat them. A qualified specialist can help you choose the one that’s right for you.

Regain your mobility with Premia Spine!

David danced at his son’s wedding

Bonnie explains why TOPS surgery was the right decision for her

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Scott speaks about going to surgery

The key benefits of the TOPS System are:

  • More controlled movement compared to spinal fusion
  • A reduction in pain
  • Restored ability to do regular activities
  • Improved overall quality of life

Living With Degenerative Joint Disease

As a long-term condition, degenerative joint disease requires lifestyle changes to help you cope with its symptoms and lessen the impact it may have on the overall quality of your life. This is why it’s always important to speak to medical professionals who can offer support and ease the strain of osteoarthritis. 

Preventing Degenerative Joint Disease

Preventing degenerative joint disease is not entirely possible as it’s simply a result of aging, affecting millions of people across the globe. However, it is possible to minimize the risk of osteoarthritis by maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle with good habits.  

  • Exercise

Regular exercise is a great way to limit the chances of developing osteoarthritis. But, workouts that put excessive strain on the joints, such as running and weight lifting, can have the opposite effect. Opt for low-impact exercises to prevent accelerated joint degeneration. 

Activities like swimming and cycling are great ways to keep in shape while controlling the strain placed on your joints. Two and a half hours of steady exercise each week, including some strength exercises, can build muscle strength and maintain healthy joints.

  • Work on your posture

Try to correct your posture at all times and avoid bending in an unnatural position for too long. This will help keep your spine in a healthy position. Additionally, adjust the height of your chair while working in an office and try to walk around every so often to encourage blood circulation. 

  • Eat healthily

Carrying extra weight is one of the main reasons why a person can suffer from joint-related issues, including osteoarthritis. Eating healthily and trying to lose weight can significantly reduce your chances of developing such issues. 

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If you’ve been diagnosed with degenerative joint disease, make sure to speak with your doctor about the latest available treatment options for pain relief.