My personal experience of dealing with and managing osteoarthritis of the spine, shoulder, hands and wrists.
I was diagnosed with arthritis of the spine in 1991 at the age of 31. I had always been active, did long-distance walks, climbed mountains and trees and was athletic. It started at the age of 18 with pains in my legs and feet but was told it was all in my head and that I imagined the pains. I had to wait 20 years for an X-ray of the spine and get a diagnosis.
I was diagnosed with shoulder pain six years ago after I had demanded an X-ray because the pain in my arm was so intense that I could not cope. My doctor tried to tell me that it was just my Fibromyalgia playing up but I knew different.
If your doctor dismisses you when you complain of pain in any part of the body, it is advisable to seek a second opinion. You know your own body and whether you are in pain or not and no doctor has the rights to say it is all in your head.
I was diagnosed with hand arthritis after struggling for intermittent pain and stiffness over the years.
What Is Osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis is known as a degenerative joint disease where the protective cartilage that normally cushions the bones joints wears down or degenerates through wear and tear.
Who Is Most at Risk?
As osteoarthritis is usually brought about through wear and tear it is estimated that one in three over the age of 60 will develop osteoarthritis to some degree.
However, younger people can also develop osteoarthritis if they have had a trauma or injury to a joint.
Treatment Management and Triggers
Since osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease some symptoms are going to get worse over time. It is difficult for your doctor to assess if you are experiencing a flare or worsening of arthritis.
A flare is when pain and stiffness get much worse. Medication does nothing to calm down the burning dreadful pain that a flare-up can bring. A flare can sap you of energy as your body tries to manage the pain and this can result in fatigue.
A trigger for a flare-up could be through overuse of the joint which can cause an increase of pain, stiffness, and a reduction in the range of motion in the joints. Other triggers can include, stress, cold weather, a change in barometric pressure as well as weight gain which puts more pressure on affected joints.
My body goes into a terrible flare if I get a cold or some other infection and then I experience extreme fatigue. The only thing I can do at these times is to lay still on my bed and rest. These flares can be distressing and it is best to always remember that this pain and fatigue of a flare will pass. Drink plenty and take pain relief if it will help but most of all rest.
What Is Osteoarthritis of Lumber Spine?
Spinal osteoarthritis is the wearing down of the joint cartilage of the discs in the neck and lower back. This damage can cause pain and swelling and cause the development of bone spurs which are called osteophytes.
These spurs can put pressure of the nerves running up the spine and can cause pain and weakness in the neck, back, legs and arms. This is because the spinal cord is a bundle of nerves that runs through the spinal canal that is formed by the vertebrae.
Lumbar spinal stenosis which is a narrowing of the spinal canal in the lower part of the back can cause pressure on your spinal cord or the nerves that go from your spinal cord to your muscles and cause pain and discomfort.
What Are the Symptoms?
Some people with osteoarthritis of the spine might have no significant symptoms to start with but over time and wear and tear, symptoms will eventually have an impact.
Others experience stiffness or pain in the neck or back. Osteoarthritis can become severe enough to affect the spinal nerves which can cause pain and stiffness in the neck, weakness or numbness in the legs or arms.
Some days my legs are so stiff and painful that it is difficult to stand up straight. Laying down flat can help relieve back pain and discomfort. With osteoarthritis of the spine, I experience a lot of pain and stiffness, especially in the morning.
I have a carer who helps me get off the bed in the morning to get in standing position. Many times I have difficulty standing up at all and it feels like my legs cannot take my weight when I could walk perfectly well the day before.
I often have difficulty walking and use a stick when I leave my home because I experience sudden severe pains in my feet, knees, hip and back when walking and that can knock me off my feet. I have fallen many times though sudden pain. Some days I need help to get out of a chair.
I used to take strong painkillers when my back seized up but found they had side effects that meant I could not take them. Now I know the best thing I can do is rest when I am in flare-up.
How Is Osteoarthritis of the Spine Diagnosed?
- X-Ray: The clearest way a doctor can confirm a diagnosis of the spine is by an x-ray. An x-ray will not show early signs of damage to cartilage and this means that you could be struggling for years before a proper diagnosis is given. The x-ray can identify any bone damage, loss of cartilage and bone spurs.
- Physical exam: Your doctor will also need to perform a physical examination to discover the extent of pain and tenderness and loss of motion and flexibility of the neck and lower back.
- Blood tests: Your doctor can also look for nerve damage, loss of sensation or changes in reflex. Your doctor might want to run blood tests to exclude other possible causes of pain.
- MRI: This can show areas where discs have been damaged or where there is a narrowing of areas where spinal nerves exit.
Osteoarthritis of the Shoulder
Not as common as knee osteoarthritis, shoulder arthritis can be a painful, debilitating and distressing condition. With every movement of the shoulder and friction on the joint the pain increases and can get quite severe.
Without treatment, it is possible to lose function and mobility of the shoulder. When my shoulder flares up, the pain is dreadful and disrupts my sleep. I have a constant nagging aching pain in my arm and I find it difficult to use the arm. There are times when I cannot use my arm to get dressed, brush my hair or do any of my normal activities because my arm becomes too painful to use.
When the pain in my shoulder gets to the point where I am in pain and cannot use my arm I have a steroid injection which eases the pain for a while.
An x-ray can identify osteoarthritis of the shoulder and rule out other conditions like fibromyalgia which can also cause pain in the arms and shoulder.
Osteoarthritis of the Hands And Wrists
Osteoarthritis of the hand in a younger patient is usually caused by injury and genetic bone disease. Joints of the hand include joints in palm and fingers that can become stiff and painful making it impossible to use them.
When arthritis of my hands flare-up, the pain can be severe. During times of flare-up of my hands and wrists I cannot hold any weight, not even a cup of tea. I cannot open toothpaste or even clean my teeth.
My hands become so painful at the slightest movement and become unusable. I have to have a carer to help me get dressed, get me food and water and help me with other issues brought about through arthritis of the hands and wrists.
Severe pain in my wrist can be caused through my hobby of crocheting. I cannot crochet like I used to do since osteoarthritis set in. I can no longer play squash, tennis or badminton because of the pain. With a diagnosis of osteoarthritis comes the need to adapt our lives and our way of life so that we can care for our joints.
Hand exercises can be done which can help ease some of the pain of osteoarthritis and are recommended. When I am having good days I use two small dumbbells to do a few arm exercises and I am seeing a toning of my arms and I feel stronger. Do not think you are too old or weak to do a few exercises using weights as I am over 60 and recommend.
If you are experiencing similar pain to what I have described a doctor can request a scan of the hands and wrists to rule out other problems like carpal tunnel which can mimic arthritis pain of the wrists.
A wrist splint is advisable for wrist arthritis when in a flare. The splint will prevent the movement of the wrist until the flare eases.
Exercise Is a Must
Osteoarthritis is degenerative so it is not going to get better so exercise is important. It is all too easy to give up exercising after a diagnosis of osteoarthritis especially when there is the fear of aggravating arthritis and causing a flare but to keep mobile and supple you need an exercise plan.
Whilst it is important to have an exercise plan whatever your arthritis type it is not good to exercise while in an arthritis flare. When in a flare rest the affected area as much as possible.
Neck exercises will keep the neck movement from seizing up.
- Neck rotation exercises can be beneficial to those experiencing stiffness and pain in the neck or shoulders.
- Gentle stretch exercises are good for can improve your flexibility. One exercise I do is I lay on my back and whilst holding my knee I bring the knee into my chest until I feel the stretch and hold it for five seconds. Repeat with the other leg.
- Swimming is an excellent exercise for those with osteoarthritis as the water reduces the stress on joints. Water exercises do help to relieve pain and stiffness. The water gives some resistance and this resistance can strengthen the muscles without putting too much stress on the joints.
Is Osteoarthritis Affected by Change in Weather?
In my experience, it is a definite yes to the weather having an impact on osteoarthritis. I have many more problems throughout the winter months as a result of arthritis. It is if I can feel it in my joints that there is a change in air pressure too. I have many more flare-ups throughout the winter months and I am one of those who dread the cold days of winter because that is when I am at my worst.
Is Osteoarthritis Disabling?
During the early years of having arthritis I was still able to take long walks in between times of bad pain and stiffness. I can no longer walk distances or do anything like dancing because that will bring on a flare up. I am more restricted as to what I can and cannot do these days.
I lost my career as a counsellor because I struggled to stand and walk on some days. I could not sit in a chair for an hour without much discomfort and pain and stiffness. Osteoarthritis flare-ups give no warning and so I am no longer fit for work and regarded as disabled.
I was depressed and struggled to deal with the pain and changes in my ability to function like I used to. Many people do get depressed because it can be a difficult condition to deal with.
You can overcome depression by adapting your life and needs to care for yourself and your needs and by accepting the diagnosis. By doing that you will open yourself up to finding other ways to enjoy your experience of life. Osteoarthritis might be disabling to the body but by staying positive it can be managed.
Could You Have Osteoarthritis?
If you have experienced problems with arthritis similar to mine and not yet diagnosed ask your GP for a scan or x-ray which can identify osteoarthritis clearly.
Feel free to leave a comment below.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Louise Elcross (author) from Preston on June 02, 2020:
Thanks for reading Pamela99. I really feel for you because I too have lupus that brings its own problems. I am sorry that your arms are so badly damaged and know you probably had some bad days because I know the pain of shoulder arthritis is terrible. I feel for anyone going through pain. Thanks again for your comment.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on June 02, 2020:
Your article is very interesting and I am sorry you have such a rough time. This article is very well-written and you covered your situation very well.
I was a RN but had to stop working due to lupus and arthritis.
Over the years I had steroid injections in my shoulders but the end result was avascular necrosis in both arms. That means the bones are dead so use the injections sparingly.
Thanks for sharing your difficut experiences and some very good information.