According to the CDC, osteoarthritis affects over 32.5 million Americans. Despite this, most of us have a poor understanding of osteoarthritis and how it affects quality of life. The condition, which is primarily associated with aging, is regarded as a degenerative joint disease. It develops as a result of wear and tear that affects the protective cartilage and tissues at the ends of bones and joints. When this happens, the nerve endings are exposed and this causes osteoarthritis pain. Although most commonly linked to aging, the risk of osteoarthritis is also higher for women, obese adults, after a joint injury (or overuse), and for anyone with a family history of the disease. The importance of early detection and appropriate care is just as important as recognizing the significant impact that osteoarthritis can have on quality of life. This is particularly concerning for seniors, who are most vulnerable to osteoarthritis complications.
Joint pain is the defining symptom of osteoarthritis and this can have a huge impact on mobility. This is particularly true when dealing with osteoarthritis in the lower limbs, like the knee or the hips. Pain in the affected area also reduces the range of joint movement, especially because of increased stiffness after periods of rest. Over 80 percent of osteoarthritis patients experience trouble performing everyday activities and tasks. This means that osteoarthritis can impair your ability to perform household chores, and it can also keep you away from work and other outdoor activities that you might otherwise engage in.
Increased Risk of Falls
Falls can be particularly devastating for seniors, regarded as the leading cause of morbidity among the elderly population. This makes osteoarthritis particularly worrying, as the condition is associated with a higher risk of falls. Knee and hip osteoarthritis are particularly problematic. A study published in the journal Arthritis Care and Research found that the risk was measurably higher, depending on the number of symptomatic lower limb joints. With a single symptomatic joint, the risk was measured at 53 percent, while it was 85 percent with 3 to 4 affected joints.
Loss of Independence
The pain and reduced mobility associated with osteoarthritis can be severe enough to impair one’s ability to function on a day to basis. Even simple tasks like cooking, cleaning, or picking up groceries can exacerbate joint pain and swelling, turning them into a challenge. This can be particularly frustrating and disheartening for seniors who have lived independent lives. With increased dependence on family members or caregivers comes the feeling of helplessness. For some, osteoarthritis can also mean a loss of livelihood or earning capacity.
Reduced Sleep Quality
Sleep quality often declines with age, but these effects are exacerbated in patients who suffer from arthritic disease. Studies show that chronic pain in conditions like osteoarthritis can not only increase sleep disturbance, but that this has a cascading effect on symptoms, increasing stress and the sensation of pain. The risk of sleep impaired sleep quality can be easily mitigated with sleep conditioning and home care strategies like meditation, yoga, and acupuncture.
Patients who suffer from osteoarthritis are less likely to be physically active because of the painful symptoms and reduced range of movement. Unfortunately, a sedentary lifestyle has been proven to exacerbate osteoarthritis symptoms in terms of both severity and frequency. The deleterious effect of being physically inactive is even more striking in seniors. In addition to accelerating muscle atrophy, reduced physical activity causes weight gain, which can give rise to other complications. Weight gain is also linked to lifestyle diseases like cardiac disease and diabetes are both linked to weight gain.
Reduced mobility doesn’t just hurt one’s ability to perform household tasks or to work; it also restricts your ability to go out and socialize. As social animals, we thrive on companionship and contact with others. Social support is also important for coping with illness, making social isolation a significant threat. Unfortunately, many osteoarthritis patients are socially withdrawn and have limited interaction with people because of the painful and unpredictable osteoarthritis symptoms. This greatly increases the risk of other mental health problems.
Chronic Stress and Anxiety Disorders
Stress and anxiety are normal responses to chronic illness, but chronic stress and anxiety can have severe repercussions. Although seniors are more likely to suffer from generalized anxiety disorders, those who suffer from osteoarthritis are at a significantly higher risk. This relationship between pain and anxiety is cyclical, with increased anxiety also worsening osteoarthritis pain.
The prevalence of depression follows a similar pattern to anxiety. While 7 to 17 percent of the senior population is believed to suffer from depression, the rates of depression in osteoarthritis patients may higher than 60 percent. The risk of depression is also higher among aged populations because of other conditions that are likely to surface with aging. These can include concurrent health problems, the loss of a loved one, increased social isolation, and the debilitating effect of osteoarthritis symptoms. The severity of pain and extent of disability has a direct impact on the severity of depression. Like anxiety, depression can also lead to a worsening of osteoarthritis symptoms with both conditions sharing a reciprocal relationship.
Coping with Osteoarthritis
Once you accept and understand the manner in which osteoarthritis can impair quality of life, you can take steps to prepare for the worst-case scenario. Like other degenerative conditions, osteoarthritis will worsen if not managed appropriately. While the risks are very real, many seniors continue to live healthy and active lives despite osteoarthritis.
Balanced nutrition and adequate physical activity are critical to maintaining both physical and mental health, especially when you suffer from a chronic pain disorder like osteoarthritis. In addition to strengthening the muscles and helping avoid weight gain, healthy nutrition and exercise can reduce inflammation and improve pain tolerance. Exercise can also lower the risk of depression and anxiety.
In addition to diet and exercise, it’s important to seek medical care and follow the treatment as directed. Although there is no known cure for osteoarthritis, medication can provide relief from symptoms and slow progression of the disease. Physical therapy is vital as it can improve and preserve mobility, greatly improving quality of life. You can also try alternative therapies like yoga, acupuncture, and tai chi in order to help preserve physical and mental health. Most important is the acceptance and recognition of the need for help. Home care providers can offer assistance allowing you to stay active and as independent as possible.
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