What Are My Options When Arthritis Strikes?
What is Osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis (or wear-and-tear arthritis) is the most common type of arthritis and affects approximately 2 million Australians today.
Osteoarthritis is a disease which affects the otherwise smooth and shiny cartilage within joints, and makes these surfaces rough, porous, thin, crumbly or bumpy. Osteoarthritis most commonly affects weight-bearing joints such as the knees, hips and spine. However, arthritis can also affect smaller and more nimble joints like those in the hands, fingers, elbows and toes.
Osteoarthritis affects people of all ages but the disease is more common amongst older people, especially older women.
How Do I Find Out if I Have Osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis affects people of all ages but the disease is more common amongst older people, especially older women. Your general practitioner (GP), orthopaedic specialist or rheumatologist can diagnose osteoarthritis. To be accurately diagnosed, your doctor will likely need:
– Your medical history
– A physical examination
– An X-ray, CT or MRI scan
A blood test is often ordered as well to rule out other possible types of arthritis e.g. rheumatoid/psoriatic arthritis.
What Are My Options?
There are three primary goals when treating osteoarthritis: control the pain, preserve joint function and slow further disease progression. The following osteoarthritis treatments have a few key benefits and limitations:
Over-the-counter pain medication: Over-the-counter pain relief (paracetamol) and anti-inflammatory medications (ibuprofen) are sometimes enough to control mild soreness and restore pain-free movement.
Prescription pain medication: Some stronger pain relievers (e.g. hydrocodone and tramadol) require a prescription and can help manage pain and restore joint function in more severe cases of osteoarthritis. Corticosteroids (e.g. prednisone) also require a prescription but have greater potency. Long term use of these drugs may lead to side effects and should be discussed with your doctor.
Exercise and physiotherapy: Although you may require pharmaceutical relief to begin exercising with sore joints, benefits include strengthening the muscles that surround the joint(s), maintaining bone strength, improving flexibility, achieving good quality sleep, managing weight and improving your overall mood and confidence – key factors in reducing your risk of debilitation.
Non-surgical regenerative therapy: Regenerative medicine is a rapidly developing field of medicine which repairs the damaged joint and restores the quality of cartilage to reverse disease progression, reduce pain and restore joint function. These therapies include stem cell joint repair and ligament prolotherapy. Although the majority of these treatments are relatively new in Australia, other countries have been researching and developing these non-surgical treatments for more than 15 years. Regenerative therapies are more effective against early-stage osteoarthritis, and are often considered by patients who are too young for joint surgery.
Joint replacement surgery: Unfortunately, many patients put-off treating their osteoarthritis until joint surgery is the only option. Joint replacement surgery has been performed for over 60 years and can completely reduce pain and restore a joint’s range of motion in up to 80 % of patients. After the first joint replacement, a once-off “revision” is generally required 10- 15 years later. Revision surgery has a higher risk of complication and is typically required to last the remainder of a patient’s life. This is one reason why orthopaedic surgeons prefer a patient to be at least 60-65 years old before joint replacement is recommended.
What Should I Consider When Diagnosed?
If you’ve been told by your doctor that you have knee, hip or spinal (vertebral) osteoarthritis there are a few key questions to ask yourself:
Q1. Does my osteoarthritis affect my mood/sleep/day-to-day life?
If not, anti-inflammatory medication and light exercise may be all that’s required. If yes, continue to Q2…
Q2. Am I under 55? Do I want to avoid surgery? Is the pain still bearable?
If the answer is “yes” to any of these questions, it may be time to explore non-surgical regenerative medical options such as stem cell therapy. If you answered “no” to all, continue to Q3…
Q3. Do I already have private health cover for joint replacement surgery?
If yes, you may consider booking an appointment with a private orthopaedic surgeon to discuss joint replacement surgery through a private hospital or surgery centre. If not, continue to Q4…
Q4. Does my osteoarthritis prevent me from working or earning an income (effectively costing you money)?
If not, then you may want to consider joining a public waiting list (1-3 years depending on your location, joint type and disease severity). If yes, continue to Q5…
Q5. Can I afford to wait the mandatory 12 month waiting period once joining a private health insurer?
If yes, then contact a private health insurer to discuss the details of cover for joint replacement surgery and find the best solution for you. If not, continue to Q6…
Q6. Can I afford $20-45,000 for private orthopaedic surgery?
Book private surgery within 3-6 months and pay the private surgery prices. If this is beyond your budget and you can’t wait any longer, continue to Q7…
Q7. Do I have affordable high-quality options elsewhere?
Yes. More than 22,000 Australians travel around the world for surgery each year. International hospitals in destinations like Düsseldorf (Germany) and Bangkok (Thailand) specialise in treating foreign patients from the USA, Europe, the Middle-East and Australia. Here, orthopaedic surgeons and speciality hospitals routinely perform joint replacement surgeries and provide specialised aftercare for medical travellers.
Q8. Why would people travel overseas for surgery?
Private international hospitals have very short waiting lists and save patients up to 50% off local private surgery costs. For guidance on picking the right hospitals and pricing, contact a reputable medical travel facilitator here in Australia. Facilitators are key to ensuring your ongoing care through the Australian medical system after your safe return home. No two people with osteoarthritis are the same. The most severe osteoarthritis may cause little to no pain in some while others suffer immense pain from the early onset of osteoarthritis. If you think you may have osteoarthritis, ask your physician about assessment today and start discussing a personalised long-term treatment plan.