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Relief in Motion - Knowledge is a Prime Factor in Joint Pain Recovery

by Thomas P. Janssen, MD

Arthralgia, otherwise know as joint pain, is one of the most common symptoms that lead to a visit with an orthopedic physician. There are many causes for joint pain, but the most common and significant by far, are problems related to cartilage.

To understand how cartilage problems can cause pain, it is important to understand the function of cartilage.

Absorbing Shock in the Knee
Cartilage is a layer of highly specialized tissue covering the ends of each bone. These ends articulate together, forming a joint. The knee joint, for instance, has a layer of cartilage approximately one-quarter inch thick. The knee has a large range of motion over which stresses are applied to the cartilage surface.

The cartilage of the knee acts much like a shock absorber or padding that allows the pressure to spread out over a large area. Without this cartilage function, pressure points and/or areas of stress concentration can develop. This situation creates a painful and uncomfortable feeling, similar to standing on a sharp object with a bare foot.

The other important function of cartilage is to provide a smooth surface, much like a ball bearing, that allows motion with little or no friction. Cartilage damage results in a rough joint surface, much like a ball bearing joint covered with grains of sand that make it grind and catch.

Assessing Cartilage Damage
Cartilage damage can result from several factors, including trauma, arthritis (such as rheumatoid), and joints that have developed abnormally. The most common form of arthritis is osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is the premature wearing or breakdown of articular cartilage. To a certain extent, everyone is subject to some age-related wear and tear that affects the joints. People with osteoarthritis, however, develop it at a much earlier age and much more rapidly.

When patients present with a painful joint, it is important to determine if there is a swelling or fluid in the joint, commonly called an effusion. The development of an effusion is often a sign of significant cartilage damage.

Treatment Options
Many treatments - both conservative and surgical - are available to patients with cartilage problems. The first step is to see an orthopedic surgeon for proper diagnosis and treatment options. If you are diagnosed with cartilage disease, there are some simple things you can do.

Decreasing the amount of stress in the joint is helpful. For example, for a painful knee, using a cane on the opposite side of the joint will unload some of the stress, allowing you to remain mobile. Along with other treatments, medications, and/or injections, it will allow for some healing of the joint.