December 14, 2023

Knee arthritis – what is it?

Written by Matija Krkovic

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Many know that knee arthritis is a condition that affects the knee joint in a human body. The symptoms usually manifest in the form of swelling and pain. Swelling occurs due to the increased blood flow to the affected knee joint and increased joint fluid production. There are several different types of knee arthritis, with some affecting other organs as well as the knee.

There are several types of knee arthritis: gout related arthritis, juvenile idiopathic arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and knee osteoarthritis. Gout related arthritis is caused by increased level of uric acid in the body, while all other types of arthritis, with the exception of osteoarthritis, occur as a result of an autoimmune response of the body to certain components or parts of the joints.  

Knee osteoarthritis is the most common type of knee arthritis. This is where wear and tear changes in the joint result in inflammation; though it usually takes several years for cartilage to wear away to the point of bone-on-bone contact. Bone-on-bone contact increases the irritation and pain felt within the knee joint. While this type of arthritis predominantly affects older people, it can certainly affect younger people and those who have suffered a significant derangement of the affected knee joint following a significant medical event, such as a trauma or infection. Generally speaking, there are two main forms of knee osteoarthritis we see in clinical practise. The first is where a patient develops significant osteophytes (bone spurs or tiny bony growths), narrowing the joint space, often resulting in bone-on-bone contact. This is usually accompanied by a significant swelling of the knee joint. The knee will develop a so–called arthritic look, becoming fusiform shaped, warm to the touch, swelling and significantly increased pain, mainly on resting. Commencing with activities and mobilising does help to alleviate this pain, although it does not resolve it completely. In my estimate, this type of osteoarthritis is present in 70-80% of people with osteoarthritis. Patients who experience similar changes and experience pain mainly on activities but not while resting fall into the second group. This pain usually has a significant detrimental impact on the patient’s lifestyle, causing them to reduce or even completely stop engaging in these activities.  

In the early stages of knee osteoarthritis, painkillers (NSAIDs) and activity are the usual treatment. NSAIDs will reduce the inflammation when taken regularly, reducing the swelling and consequently pain. Maintaining activity levels will keep muscles fit and allow for appropriate control of the affected joint as the patient will be able to control the movement rather than it be dictated by the body weight.

If conservative measures are not effective in helping the patient improve their symptoms and the knee condition deteriorates further, surgical options should be considered. Keyhole surgery (knee arthroscopy) has very limited, if any, place in progressed stages of knee osteoarthritis. The main surgical option for early stages of knee osteoarthritis is osteotomy, namely high tibial osteotomy. During this procedure, the tibia is broken below the knee joint and the leg is realigned so the loaded parts of the knee joint are away from the affected parts of the knee joint. This procedure usually allows the patient an additional five to ten years before they have to seek a knee replacement surgery. A knee replacement surgery is a final treatment for knee osteoarthritis; worn parts of the knee joint are replaced by metal and plastic to allow for improved function of the knee joint. If the knee replacement is done too early in the process patients are, generally speaking, not happy with the outcome of the surgery. Correct assessment and estimate of the symptoms prior to a knee replacement surgery is paramount for the success of the procedure. It is better to postpone the surgery if there are any concerns regarding the patient’s symptoms. Oftentimes, this results in patients being happier with the final results and improved activity level after the procedure.  

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