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Hand osteoarthritis (degenerative arthritis of the hand)

Here's information about osteoarthritis of the hand - from what causes it to how it can be treated and how the pain can be managed.

What is arthritis?

Arthritis is a general term for inflammation in the joints. Arthritis can occur in numerous forms. The most common is osteoarthritis, a condition in which the cartilage, the protective cushioning between the joints, degenerates. When this happens the bones rub directly against other bones. This causes structural changes that can be seen on X-rays. Bone deposits or bone spurs known as osteophytes may develop on the edges of the joints. The soft tissues that stabilise joints may also show signs of damage.

Arthritis is often painful, but not always. Over time arthritis can result in joint deformity and can limit the motion and function of joints.

What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative arthritis, may affect one or more joints anywhere in the body. The joints most often affected are the hands and the weight-bearing joints of the lower extremities (knees, ankles, feet).

In osteoarthritis there is a steady worsening and decline of joint cartilage. It affects only particular joints and not the rest of the body. The onset of osteoarthritis is directly related to ageing, but the true causes are not known. Doctors increasingly view osteoarthritis as an active process involving inflammation and other disease mechanisms that become more common with age, rather than simply “wear and tear over time” as it used to be seen.

Certain factors are thought to be important in the development of osteoarthritis:

  • Joint stability and alignment affect both the distribution of forces across the joint and the joint's longevity. Abnormalities in the structures of the joint that lead to poor alignment can induce stresses, which trigger osteoarthritis.
  • Risk factors for osteoarthritis include being overweight, heavy usage and traumatic injuries that result in joint irregularities.
  • Some people are thought to have a family history of osteoarthritis and so may develop it at a younger age, though this factor is not well understood. This suggests that genetic factors play a part, making someone more vulnerable to inflammation of the joints

Who is affected by osteoarthritis?

NHS statistics show osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis in the UK, with an estimated 8.5 million people affected by it. Osteoarthritis is more common in older people. However younger people may get the disease through injury or genetic bone defects. Because wear and tear contributes to or aggravates the process of osteoarthritis, the chance of developing the disease increases as people age.

Before 45 years old, more men than women get the disease. After 45 years old, more women than men are affected. Other risk factors include being overweight and having a job that causes particular stress to joints.

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