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Dr. Gott: Osteoarthritis not linked to employment

DEAR DR. GOTT: I have osteoarthritis in my neck and spine. Could you tell me how a 54-year-old lady like me got such a thing? My job is repetitive work in manufacturing, but my employer says it’s not from the work. I feel it is, but I don’t feel that 54 is old.

DEAR READER: Osteoarthritis is a chronic condition that results from a breakdown of joint cartilage. Healthy cartilage allows our joints to move easily and without pain. When osteoarthritis is present, a degeneration of the cartilage that cushions bone ends occurs. Over time, some areas of cartilage may wear away completely, resulting in damage to the bone and extreme pain on movement. The ends of the bone may form spurs, and the ligaments may thicken. This common disorder affects about one in three people and, while most common in older adults, it can affect people of any age.

All of our joints are susceptible to osteoarthritis, but those most commonly affected are ones that bear weight — knees, hips, spine, feet, neck, lower back and hands. When the knees or hips are involved, pain may be experienced with motion but may disappear when at rest. When the spine is involved, stiffness and discomfort can be felt and can generate to the lower back. There may be pain generating to the head or down the arms.

I cannot determine from your brief note why you have the condition. It may be related to a sports injury when you were younger, or you may have a family history of OA. There is also a consideration of a chemical change that has occurred in your cartilage, causing it to break down faster than it can be produced. You also may be carrying more weight than is healthy for your frame, or you may be relatively inactive. As you can see, there are a number of causes for a woman at the early age of 54 to develop this condition.

You might be helped by over-the-counter or prescription NSAIDS (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication). There are also glucosamine/chondroitin combinations available at your local pharmacy that may help to build cartilage and improve your joint mobility. If appropriate, consider weight reduction. Above all, stay as active as possible. Keeping your joints as mobile and flexible as possible can help reduce your pain and stiffness. Consider yoga, tai chi or water aerobics. On the home front, consider rubbing castor oil on your painful joints. Some of my readers have found success by using purple grape juice and liquid pectin commonly used to make jam. Simply mix 1 to 2 tablespoons of pectin in 8 ounces of grape juice, and drink it once a day.

When all else fails and the pain becomes unbearable, speak with your physician regarding heavy-duty pain medication or surgery. Your personal physician knows your complete medical history and can help you make the determination as to whether you are well enough to consider such a step. Many hospitals also have occupational therapists, who can evaluate the situation and offer suggestions.