Osteoarthritis (OA) is a degenerative condition caused by the gradual breakdown of cartilage in the joints. It is also known as wear and tear arthritis and degenerative joint disease.

OA affects more than 30 million adults in the U.S. While the disorder primarily affects older people, the onset of OA symptoms could happen at a younger age. Patients with advanced symptoms of OA have extreme difficulty in moving and performing routine activities.

According to patients typical osteoarthritis treatment involves pain-relieving medications, such as acetaminophen and duloxetine hydrochloride. As the symptoms worsen, patients need to undergo bone realignment or joint replacement surgery to regain mobility.

While osteoarthritis is an irreversible condition, the good news is it progresses in stages. Implementing lifestyle changes and other preventive measures early on can prevent the condition from progressing to advanced stages.

That is why patients must remain extremely vigilant about their symptoms and stay in touch with their primary care provider.

This blog will take a closer look at warning signs and symptoms at each stage of osteoarthritis. Also, it will discuss effective treatment options and alternative therapies for different stages.

Understanding Osteoarthritis Stages

Osteoarthritis is classified into different stages depending on the extent of joint damage and bone deformity. Typically, the condition affects the following body parts:

  • Knees
  • Hips
  • Spine
  • Shoulders
  • Hands
  • Fingers

Diagnosing and treating the condition in the initial stages eliminates the need for invasive treatments, such as steroid injections and surgery.

Stage 0 (Pre-osteoarthritis)

Stage 0 of osteoarthritis is characterized by a healthy joint with no visible signs of cartilage breakdown or bone growth. Patients don’t experience any stiffness or pain in the joints. At this stage, they should talk to a medical professional to assess their risk of developing osteoarthritis later in life.

The following factors increase an individual’s likelihood of experiencing severe OA symptoms:

  • Age: OA is more common among older adults.
  • Gender: Women, particularly those undergoing menopause, are more likely to develop OA.
  • Weight: Being overweight or obese puts excess strain on the joints.
  • Genetics: A family history of osteoarthritis puts an individual at risk for developing OA.

Other health conditions, such as diabetes, also increase the risk of OA.

Stage 1 (Minor)

Stage 1 of OA doesn’t present any noticeable symptoms, such as pain, tenderness, or inflammation in the joints. Noticeable signs of cartilage degeneration are absent at this stage. However, a joint fluid analysis might reveal subtle changes in the molecular structure of collagen fibers and chondrocytes.

Also, patients can develop small bone spurs (known as osteophytes). The most indicative symptom of stage 1 of OA is mild joint pain, particularly after periods of prolonged physical activity.

Stage 2 (Mild)

At this stage, patients have significant cartilage breakdown and bone spurs that are visible in X-ray and MRI scans. Common symptoms of stage 2 of osteoarthritis include:

  • Joint pain, particularly after physical activity
  • Stiffness, particularly in the morning or after prolonged sitting

These symptoms can manifest in the form of mobility issues.

Stage 3 (Moderate)

This stage is characterized by severe cartilage tissue wear and tear, causing extreme pain, stiffness, and tenderness. Patients have difficulty walking, climbing the stairs, and moving the affected joints.

Stage 4 (Severe)

This is the most advanced stage of OA. There is a complete breakdown of the protective cartilage tissue in the joints—the gap between bones in a joint shows a significant reduction. Also, patients develop larger bone spur growths.

Osteoarthritis Treatment for Different Stages

Cartilage damage caused by osteoarthritis can’t be reversed. Once the condition progresses to stage 4, surgery is the only option to restore normal movement. Similarly, patients in stage 3 might be prescribed cortisone or hyaluronic acid injections to relieve pain and maintain mobility.

However, it isn’t mandatory for every patient to go through these invasive procedures. There are several ways to manage joint pain and slow down cartilage degeneration. That, in turn, can prevent OA from progressing to the advanced stages.

Treatment for Stage 0

If a patient is identified to be at risk of developing OA, they might be prescribed preventive measures, such as:

Also, patients who are overweight or obese should consider implementing a regimen for gradual weight loss. It is crucial for reducing strain on the weight-bearing joints, such as hips and knees.

Treatment for Stage 1

Regular exercise and a balanced diet are crucial for preventing or decelerating further joint damage. Patients could also consider taking supplements, such as omega-3, glucosamine sulfate, and avocado-soybean unsaponifiable.

It is equally important to increase the intake of anti-inflammatory foods, such as whole grains, seeds, ginger, turmeric, and green tea.

If a patient’s lifestyle or occupation involves rigorous physical activity, they should talk to their primary care provider about ways to protect their joints.

Additionally, doctors might prescribe mild pain-relieving medications for symptomatic relief.

Treatment for Stage 2

Considering the onset of visible joint damage, treatment for stage 2 of OA is focused on preventing further cartilage degeneration. Exercise, weight loss measures, and an anti-inflammatory diet continue to be important.

Additionally, patients are advised to use knee braces or caps to protect the joints. Yoga, tai chi, and physical therapy will alleviate stiffness by keeping the joints agile.

Apart from acetaminophens, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as Advil, might be prescribed for pain relief.

Treatment for Stages 3 and 4

Slowing down OA progression in these advanced stages is fairly difficult. However, maintaining a healthy lifestyle can help alleviate pain and other symptoms to some extent. Corticosteroid injections or surgery might be necessary to improve patients’ quality of life.

Staying Vigilant for Early Diagnosis

A cure for osteoarthritis is yet to be formulated. However, early detection can help doctors prescribe suitable preventive measures to slow down disease progression. Patients are advised to keep an eye out for common symptoms, such as joint pain, tenderness, swelling, and inflammation.

Embracing a healthy lifestyle and controlling body weight will help protect the joints. Alternative remedies, such as acupuncture, physical therapy, massage, and hydrotherapy, could also work for some patients.