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What Tests Diagnose Osteoarthritis in the Elderly?Article by Daniel Westhead
Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, affecting an astonishing one in ten adults in the UK. It can be especially common in senior citizens. Symptoms can be debilitating, ranging from joint tenderness to muscle wastage, so it’s crucial to catch the disease as early as possible.
Luckily, there are several ways to diagnose, test and scan for the condition, including an osteoarthritis X-ray. Keep reading to find out more.
Osteoarthritis: the basics
Before explaining what tests are done to diagnose osteoarthritis, let's run through the basics: How does the disease manifest in everyday life?
Osteoarthritis is sometimes known as "degenerative joint disease" or "wear and tear arthritis" because it breaks down the body’s cartilage and underlying bone. Over time, sufferers report increased pain, stiffness and swelling – paired with reduced mobility, sometimes leading to disability.
While almost any joint is susceptible, the condition usually impacts weight-bearing areas, such as the hips and knees. We suggest booking a non-invasive osteoarthritis hip X-ray or osteoarthritis knee X-ray if you experience the following symptoms:
- Joint cracking or grating
- Decreased range of motion
- Muscle weakness
Who suffers from osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis doesn't discriminate, and people of all ages live with the condition. Some of the most common causes in young adults include joint injuries from high-impact sports, road traffic accidents and sedentary lifestyles.
However, you'll find most cases in the elderly, and people over 50 years old. Unsurprisingly, due to the menopause and hormone changes, women are twice as likely to suffer than men.
What is the first stage of osteoarthritis?
The first step towards successfully diagnosing osteoarthritis is vigilance. When you know what to look out for, you're more likely to catch symptoms before they progress. There are five stages of the disease – ideally, seek intervention before stage two.
- Stage zero (normal) – Joints are healthy and pain-free, showing no detectable signs of osteoarthritis.
- Stage one (minor) – Negligible wear and tear of the joints with little or no pain, accompanied by small bone spur growths.
- Stage two (mild) – An osteoarthritis X-ray will show larger bone spur growths, and there may be increased pain. However, synovial fluid (the lubricating joint fluid) is still present.
- Stage three (moderate) – Obvious cartilage erosion, frequent pain when walking or exercising and joint stiffness after long periods of inactivity.
- Stage four (severe) – Joint space between the bones is dramatically reduced, causing extreme pain in every activity. The breakdown of cartilage triggers a chronic inflammatory response.
How is osteoarthritis diagnosed?
While we wish the process was straightforward, there isn't a definitive one-stop test for osteoarthritis. Instead, your GP or healthcare professional will engage multiple diagnostic tools to determine whether you have the condition.
Before doing anything else, your doctor will ask for your medical and family history – the condition may be hereditary, although studies haven't yet identified a responsible gene. On top of this, you're more likely to develop symptoms if your joints have already been damaged by injury or disease.
Based on your answers, doctors can differentiate between osteoarthritis and other disorders like rheumatoid arthritis or gout. To diagnose the former, healthcare professionals ask whether:
- You're aged 45 or over
- You experience joint pain that gets worse when you move
- Joint stiffness lasts less than 30 minutes – if not, you might have another form of arthritis
Next is the physical exam – a quick and mostly painless procedure that'll check your general health, reflexes and mobility.
The exact process depends on the joint. For example, if you have suspected osteoarthritis of the knee, a doctor or physical therapist will assess symmetry and alignment, knee flexion deformities, muscle wastage, obvious swelling and more. Additionally, you'll probably be asked to complete a few simple exercises, including walking and standing up.
Doctors will ask about your pain during each movement. It's important to give as much detail as possible so they can devise effective treatment plans.
An osteoarthritis X-ray is one of the most effective ways to test for the disease. You'll only be referred after a thorough medical history and physical exam. Plus, your symptoms must be mild to severe because the technology can't detect early joint damage.
- Joint space narrowing
- Bone damage
- Bone spurs
- Bone remodelling
- Subchondral cysts – fluid-filled spaces inside joints that often need draining
- Sclerosis – abnormal hardening of body tissue
You may have to push for an osteoarthritis X-ray because healthcare professionals mostly use it to rule out other conditions. If they're certain you have the disease, they usually prefer to focus on managing symptoms and preventing further deterioration.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans
If you've already had an osteoarthritis hip X-ray or osteoarthritis knee X-ray, why do you need an MRI scan? Well, there are a few key differences.
MRIs are fantastic at showing soft tissue damage in and around the joint, like tendon and ligament injuries, whereas X-rays prioritise bone density. Most importantly, MRIs tend to be more detailed and versatile, offering healthcare professionals a holistic view of your condition.
However, you might not be eligible for an MRI if you have metal in your body, such as a pacemaker, cochlear implant or hip replacement. Don't despair – you can always speak to your GP to discuss alternative testing options.
There's no singular blood test to diagnose osteoarthritis, but doctors use them to rule out other causes for symptoms. These might include diseases that induce secondary osteoarthritis, such as osteoporosis or Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. Plus, conditions that mimic osteoarthritis, like haemophilia and rheumatoid arthritis.
Joint fluid samples
Similar to blood tests, joint fluid samples rule out other possible causes of pain, including infections and trauma. The procedure is a little more invasive, involving a small needle to inject medicine, a larger needle to draw out the synovial fluid and, thankfully, numbing cream!
Nevertheless, the barely-there discomfort is well worth it – as well as identifying the root of your problem, removing excess fluid can alleviate swelling and irritation.
Enjoy independence with a SureSafe alarm
Living with osteoarthritis is challenging enough without worrying about your independence, especially for senior citizens. That's where SureSafe alarms can help. Our range of market-leading, affordable and easy-to-use pendants offer unbeatable peace of mind.