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Orthopedics 101: Osteoarthritis of the Knee

February 24, 2017
Published in: Joint

Doctor examining a patient's knee

There are a number of different injuries and ailments that can lead to knee pain and, for the majority of them, ignoring the pain is not going to make it go away. In fact, if you're suffering from a degenerative disease like osteoarthritis of the knee, your pain will continually get worse the longer you put off treatment. Identifying and treating osteoarthritis early on is key to getting back to your active lifestyle.

What is Osteoarthritis of the Knee?

Osteoarthritis of the knee is a degenerative disease caused by the natural wear-and-tear of the cushioning between your knee joints as the cartilage begins to wear away.

As a result of the cartilage being worn away, the bones that make up your knee joints begin to rub more closely against each other, losing the cushioning present in healthy knee joints. In early stages this leads to pain and swelling and in later stages it impacts your ability to get around and even the formation of bone spurs.

Who gets Knee Osteoarthritis?

Therapist working with a woman on an injured kneeWhile adults over the age of 45 are at higher risk of developing osteoarthritis of the knee, younger people are not immune to it.

What are the Symptoms of Osteoarthritis of the Knee?

Symptoms of osteoarthritis of the knee include:

  • Pain, often triggered by activity, that may begin to subside with rest
  • Swelling of the knee, especially after periods of activity
  • Stiffness of the knee joint, especially when you first wake in the morning and after long periods of sitting
  • Decreased mobility
  • Audible cracking that may be heard when moving your knees

What Causes Osteoarthritis of the Knee?

There are a number of different causes of osteoarthritis of the knee, including:

  • Age – Because osteoarthritis of the knee is generally caused by wear-and-tear, age is the largest single factor leading to this problem.
  • Weight – Due to the added pressure on your joints caused by carrying excess weight, being overweight puts you at much greater risk of developing osteoarthritis of the knee.
  • Heredity – Certain genetic traits can put you at greater risk of developing osteoarthritis of the knee as well, if your parents suffered from osteoarthritis then it is recommended you take extra care to protect your knees and their longevity.
  • Physical Activity – despite all of the health benefits of an active lifestyle, some physical activities can lead to additional stress on your joints , putting you at higher risk for developing osteoarthritis of the knee.
  • Infections – certain types of infections may make individuals more prone to developing osteoarthritis of the knee because of their ability to impact the cartilage in the knee joints.

Other factors may also contribute to developing osteoarthritis of the knee including rheumatoid arthritis and high levels of iron or growth hormone in the body.

What Non-Surgical Treatment Options Exist for Osteoarthritis of the Knee?

A number of different treatment options exist to help relieve your knee pain and regain mobility. Knee treatment options at the early stages of osteoarthritis tend to be less drastic with more intrusive measures being necessary as your osteoarthritis progresses into the later stages.

  • Weight Loss – because carrying around excess weight can have such a severe impact on the health of your joints, weight loss can be an extremely effective way to combat the early stages of osteoarthritis of the knee and will likely be one of the first things recommended by your orthopedic surgeon if you are currently overweight.
  • Working Out – in addition to losing weight, building strength in the muscles surrounding your knee joints will reduce pain and slowdown the impact of osteoarthritis.
  • Over-the-Counter (OTC) Medications – OTC medications such as pain relievers and Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) such as Aspirin can provide temporarily relief of the pain and swelling caused by osteoarthritis of the knee.
  • Injections – injections offer temporary relief of pain lasting anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, though some patients may not experience any benefits.

What if the Non-Surgical Treatment Options Don't Work?

Surgery is considered a last resort and only considered by your orthopaedic surgeon after fully exhausting any non-surgical treatment options. However, sometimes even after trying all of the above listed treatments, knee pain still exists and surgery is the only remaining option.

Surgeon performing orthopedic surgeryWhen surgery is necessary, there are two commonly performed surgery options available:

Arthroscopy

Arthroscopy is a minimally invasive procedure using a miniature camera that allows your orthopedic surgeon to inspect the joint space, identify the root issue, remove damaged cartilage, and making other necessary repairs during a single operation.

Arthroscopy does not allow for more significant repairs so it is more commonly performed in patients under the age of 55 in an attempt to delay more significant surgery which may need to take place at a later stage.

Total Knee Replacement

When minimally invasive arthroscopy is not sufficient for performing the level of repairs necessary, total knee replacement will be necessary which consists of completely removing your natural knee joint and replacing it with a specially crafted artificial knee joint.

An artificial knee joint has three components:

  • Femoral – the femoral (thigh) component is made out of metal and covers the end of the thigh bone, like a cap. Cement is used to secure it to the bone, or it can be inserted in such a way that tissues grow into the device's porous coating.
  • Tibia – the tibia (shin bone) element is made from polyethylene and metal. Like the femoral component, it covers the end of the shin bone and is secured in the same ways.
  • Kneecap – the patella (kneecap) is replaced with an artificial kneecap which is made entirely of plastic,and secured in place with cement.

To insert these components, an incision is made starting approximately 3-4" above the knee. It runs down over the kneecap to a few inches below the knee. Existing ligaments and muscles are used to provide the new components with stability.

While we will do everything we can to help you avoid knee surgery whenever possible, the orthopedic surgeons at Augusta Health's Joint Center are extremely well-qualified and have the experience necessary to help you regain your active lifestyle through surgical options if none of the non-surgical treatment options are successful in relieving your pain.

If you are experiencing knee pain and suspect it could be osteoarthritis of the knee, give us a call at (540) 332-5047 and make an appointment. Our highly experienced team of orthopedists will work with you to identify the issue and provide a treatment that will alleviate your symptoms.