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Stages of Osteoarthritis of the Knee

For many, degenerative arthritis, also known as osteoarthritis, is a painful and debilitating condition, especially when it occurs in a heavily used joint like the knee. There is simply no practical way to eliminate the wear and tear placed on the knee joint as we age. Before considering a surgical approach, however, there are many conservative measures that should be considered to reduce the symptoms associated with a painful arthritic joint. Ultimately, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine or total joint replacement in Atlanta may recommend a knee replacement surgery as a result. We want you to be prepared to have this discussion, so you can make an informed decision on what the best treatment is for your lifestyle.

Person Standing Holding Knee

Today, with new technology, advanced surgical techniques, and improvements in pain management, knee replacement surgery is easier than every before. It is not uncommon for individuals to go home the same day as surgery, something that would not have been considered only ten years ago. Knee replacement surgery represents one of the most successful operations ever performed and can address advanced symptoms of osteoarthritis of the knee, such as pain, limited range of movement, and reduced mobility. Keep reading to learn more about osteoarthritis of the knee and its different stages.

Stage 1: Minor

Degenerative arthritis is not a condition that develops overnight but is instead the product of aging with the associated wear and tear on the cartilage in the knee joint. That damage can be progressive from routine use of the knee, or it can be magnified by an injury. In either case, Stage 1 osteoarthritis usually begins with little to no pain. In fact, sometimes patients simply write off the pain as stiffness or age-related discomfort. Therefore, the condition may go undiagnosed until it reaches a more advanced stage. In the first stage, smooth bony growths or deposits known as osteophytes may appear on the bones in the knee. Also referred to as bone spurs, osteophytes are small lumps of bone that grow slowly over time and begin to protrude into the joint where they can cause damage to the cartilage. X-rays of the knee can appear entirely normal at this initial stage of arthritis. Individuals may not report any pain or discomfort in the affected knee.

Person Sitting Holding Knee

Stage 2: Mild

As the osteoarthritis begins to progress, the osteophytes will increase in number, and they sometimes increase in size as well. Therefore, both the patient and physician may start to notice the signs of osteoarthritis in the knee. In stage 2 osteoarthritis, the osteophytes will be visible on the x-ray images, and the cartilage in the knee joint may begin to thin. The area where the bones and tissues in the knee meet will begin to harden, which leads to thicker bone in the knee. Stiffness and joint pain are common at this stage, especially after periods of inactivity, such as after sitting in an office chair for a prolonged period without rising. At this stage, there is still a buffer of cartilage and synovial fluid between the bones in the joint, so they aren’t regularly coming into contact with each other and grinding.

Stage 3: Moderate

When a patient reaches Stage 3 osteoarthritis, the condition has manifested itself in both increasing pain and decreasing range of motion. The joint will stiffen, and with the cartilage all but gone, leave the normal space between the bones in the knee reduced. An orthopedist can see the physical changes in the joint via X-ray, and cartilage loss will be easy to detect. Inflammation of the joint will be common, and the bones in the knee will continue to grow and form lumps to compensate for the lost cartilage buffer. The joint may begin to swell routinely as the knee increases the production of synovial fluid.

Stage 4: Severe

At the most advanced stage of osteoarthritis in the knee, the symptoms are undeniable. Patients in stage 4 osteoarthritis can experience tremendous pain and discomfort when they walk or move the knee joint.  They may notice obvious deformities in their lower extremities such as increased bowlegged appearance. Mobility will be hampered by both pain and reduced movement in the joint. Often, there will be dramatically less space between the bones in the joint with little to no cartilage buffer. Bone will meet bone, which results in inflammation, swelling, and pain. Even simple routine activities like walking will cause problems, and the best treatment option may be a total knee replacement (knee arthroplasty).   

If you think you may suffer from osteoarthritis of the knee, consult with an orthopedic physician to learn more about your treatment options. A knee replacement surgery may offer the best chance of relief for sufferers of Stage 4 osteoarthritis. To learn more about osteoarthritis in the knee and its different stages, contact OrthoAtlanta at (770) 953-6929. 

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