Joint by Joint: How Osteoarthritis Affects Your Body

The Prime Targets of Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis can affect any of the body's joints, but it most often occurs in the hands, knees, hips, or spine. Here's a look at how it affects each of these body parts.

Your Hands and Heberden's Nodes

Osteoarthritis of the fingers is usually hereditary. Heberden's nodes, the small bony knobs that form on the ends of finger joints, occur most often in middle-aged and older women. The nodes are usually painless and tend to develop so slowly over many years that a woman may not notice them until, for example, she has trouble slipping a ring over the joint. Heberden's nodes are twice as likely to develop in women whose mothers also have them. Similar enlargements on the middle finger joints are known as Bouchard's nodes. Both Heberden's and Bouchard's nodes may first develop in one or a few fingers and later affect others. As Heberden himself noted, the problem with these nodes is mainly cosmetic.

Your Fingers and Nodal Osteoarthritis

A more painful form of OA affecting the end joints of fingers is called nodal osteoarthritis. A single joint suddenly becomes painful, tender, and swollen for three or four weeks, and then the problem subsides. Nodal OA is also hereditary and mainly affects women 45 and older, who are 10 times more likely to develop it than men in the same age group. The joint at the base of the thumb also commonly develops osteoarthritis. By contrast, OA rarely affects the knuckles (where the fingers attach to the wrist).

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Your Knees

The knees bear more weight than any other joint in the body, which makes them very susceptible to OA. When that happens, the knees may become swollen and feel stiff and painful when you try to move them. You may notice you have trouble walking to the mailbox, climbing stairs, and getting in and out of the car. According to studies, strengthening the muscles surrounding the knee can often dramatically improve the symptoms of osteoarthritis of the knee.

See also: Foods to Fight Knee Pain

Your Hips

Like the knees, the hips are weight-bearing joints and are likewise susceptible to OA. People with osteoarthritis of the hip may have trouble bending, and the pain and stiffness may cause them to limp when they walk. The pain may not only be felt in the hip but may also "radiate" to other parts of the body, especially the groin or down the inside of the thigh. Some cases of osteoarthritis of the hip seem to be hereditary. Also, people who are bowlegged or who have other congenital abnormalities that cause the bones of the hip to be misaligned are at increased risk for hip osteoarthritis. Losing weight can help, but is not as helpful for relieving hip osteoarthritis as it is for the knee. Drugs and exercise can also help relieve pain and improve movement. Hip-replacement surgery is very effective when other treatments fall short of relieving the pain or disability.

Your Spine

Osteoarthritis of the spine mainly causes stiffness and pain in the neck or in the lower back. Measures that can help relieve the symptoms include exercises that strengthen the muscles of the back and abdomen; heat treatments; and use of support pillows when sitting. In some people, bone spurs growing from the edges of the vertebrae may squeeze the spinal nerves, causing pain, weakness, or numbness in the arms or legs. When this happens, surgery may be necessary to relieve the pressure on the nerves.

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