Dear Doctor, Do I Really Have Osteoarthritis?

Here is a common question we receive from our readers: "I'm so young, but it feels like I have arthritis in my joints—is it possible to develop osteoarthritis if I'm relatively young and healthy?"


Here's a specific example of a reader's question and our spine expert's answer.

Question:

Based on radiating pain coming from my lower back, my physician recommended I receive an MRI. The MRI results showed that I had some mild, degenerative changes to a few discs and facet joints in my lower back. Based on these results, my doctor concluded that my main problem is spinal osteoarthritis.

I'm 53, in good health and a healthy weight, and I stay active. However, I have a family history of severe osteoarthritis, particularly for female family members past menopause. Are these MRI findings normal for someone of my age and physical condition? Because of this history, I'm very concerned about having osteoarthritis symptoms already despite my younger age and good health.

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Doctor's advice:

In light of your family history, it's not surprising that you should start to have symptoms of osteoarthritis despite your age and general health.

However, those same factors are going to work in your favor, because staying active and exercising is one of the best steps you can take to ward off symptoms and slow the progression of the disease. In particular, concentrate on stretching your hamstring muscles, because strong hamstrings take stress off the lower back.

In addition to staying as active as you can, you may want to consider taking glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate supplements, if your doctor recommends it for you. Research is mixed, but there's evidence that these supplements may help relieve moderate-to-severe osteoarthritis pain by interacting with the cartilage.

Fortunately, the degeneration you're experiencing in the lower back tends to be the primary site for spinal osteoarthritis, so it may not expand to affect other levels of your spine. If your symptoms get worse or fail to respond to non-surgical treatments, there are some procedures that may be good options to bring you relief, such as a laminectomy.

By Peter F. Ullrich, Jr., MD

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This response represents the opinion of one physician, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the broader medical community. Consult your physician to receive medical advice specific to your condition.

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