Degenerative joint disease (DJD) is another term for the condition known as osteoarthritis or degenerative arthritis. Painful and debilitating, this disease afflicts more than 30 million Americans according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and this article details its causes, along with its prevention and treatment options.
What Is Degenerative Joint Disease?
Degenerative joint disease, or DJD (the medical abbreviation), is an all-too-common chronic joint disorder. Your joints are the spots in your body where two bones meet and are joined together via layers of cartilage and connective tissues like muscles, tendons, and ligaments.
With DJD, the cartilage starts to break down in the joint space, allowing painful bone-on-bone contact that causes stiffness, disability, and many other adverse symptoms. We'll review those symptoms below, and then go on to discuss what causes DJD and how to slow its development.
The Causes of DJD
Age is one of the leading causes of DJD, commonly referred to as "wear-and-tear" arthritis because that's often how it develops: a lifetime of using your joints may wear down the cartilage that keeps your bones separated. Other risk factors include a family history of joint disorders like Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS).
- Torn cartilage
- Ligament injury
- Dislocated joints
Whether the joint damage comes from an accident or is just a side effect of daily activities done under your own body weight, the pain can interfere with your life, and could ultimately require a joint replacement surgery.
The Nature of Cartilage
Your cartilage is a tough, rubbery, flexible substance that protects your bones while allowing them to move and slide against each other. When your cartilage starts to break down, the bone surfaces begin to roughen, causing pain in the joint and inflammation in the surrounding tissues.
Cartilage cannot repair itself like your skin or even your liver can—there are no blood vessels in cartilage, and so the damage suffered there is damage that is permanent.
Once cartilage wears away entirely, there is no more buffer between your bones to cushion their contact. What follows are the symptoms of that condition.
Degeneration of cartilage can happen in any joint in your body, but the most common joints affected are the joints in your hands and fingers, hips, spine, and knee. The symptoms of DJD can include:
- Joint pain: Pain in your joints during movement or even at rest could be an indication that there is friction between your bones and less cartilage to prevent it. This pain may worsen as the disease progresses.
- Inflammation: A burning or itching inflamed feeling may be felt in your joints and surrounding tissues.
- Stiffness: As stiffness worsens, your range of motion may become more limited, interrupting your daily activities and decreasing your quality of life.
- Tenderness: The joints may become sensitive to the touch, especially if DJD develops in your fingers and hands.
- Swelling: Synovial fluid (an egg-white-like viscous fluid in your joints) may increase in DJD cases, causing painful swelling. It may also contain broken-off pieces of cartilage freely floating within it.
- Joint instability: Your joints may fail, buckle (lock up), or otherwise become unstable and unreliable, possibly causing falls if DJD is in your knee joints or hip joints.
- Other symptoms: As DJD progresses, other symptoms may arise, like weakening muscles, bone spurs, and joint deformations.
While this condition and these damages are not reversible, there are ways to treat and alleviate the resulting pain.
DJD vs. Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is not the same as DJD. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder rather than a degenerative condition that can be caused by natural wear and tear. While they share similar symptoms, they are nevertheless different conditions and require different treatment methods to manage.
If you have joint pain, your doctor may take a medical history and assess your symptoms before ordering an imaging scan from either an X-ray or MRI machine to evaluate the condition of your bones and joints. A blood test may be ordered to rule out rheumatoid arthritis, and a fluid analysis may be conducted to find out whether your joint pain is caused by an infection or possibly gout.
DJD Treatment Options
Because DJD cannot be reversed, these treatments are therapies meant to manage your symptoms and retain the health you still have. This is why early diagnosis is important—you'll want to slow the progression of the degeneration as much as possible. Outside of pain and anti-inflammatory medications your doctor may suggest or prescribe, here are lifestyle changes you can make to help manage DJD at home.
Not only does exercise shore up your muscle strength, which provides joint stability, but certain low-impact exercise techniques like yoga or swimming can help stretch your body, alleviate stiffness, and improve your flexibility and pain management tools.
Gently stretching, going on walks, or practicing tai chi can improve your range of motion and preserve the joint health you still have.
If you are overweight or obese, your weight-bearing joints like your knees are under extra strain, which could quicken the progression of DJD. Losing excess weight may not only improve your joint pain but could also save you from other health dangers like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Getting a good night's sleep improves your mood and mental health and allows your joints to rest and recover at the end of each day. Tips for a good night's sleep include sticking to a regular bedtime, following the same pre-sleep routines, and going to bed in a cool, dark room.
Hot and Cold Therapy
You can help relieve joint pain by applying a heating pad or cold compresses as needed to the afflicted joints. Doing so can reduce swelling and inflammation and draw blood to the area to help repair surrounding tissue damage.
Medications and pain killers that may help you manage DJD include:
- OTC analgesics: Over-the-counter painkillers like acetaminophen (Tylenol) along with pain-relieving gels, creams, or topical patches may help you manage pain flare-ups.
- NSAIDs: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve) can help reduce swelling and joint pain.
- Antidepressants: The antidepressant duloxetine (Cymbalta) may be useful in helping you achieve pain relief—ask your doctor if it's appropriate for your condition.
- Corticosteroids: Oral or injected corticosteroids are prescription medications that can provide joint pain relief.
DJD Natural Treatments
Your doctor may advise that you try to avoid relying on drugs if you can manage your pain more naturally. Here are non-drug supplements that could help your DJD symptoms.
- Green tea
- Fish oil
Likewise natural physical treatment options include:
- Physical therapy
- Massage therapy
- Epsom salt baths
Don't Let Degeneration Get You Down
There are very few upsides when it comes to degenerative conditions: the pain you're in now might be persistent and progressive, and it's hard to find a silver lining in what, medically speaking, is a downward slope. Focus not on what you can't control, instead set your sights on how healthy you can be around degenerative joint disease, how well you can preserve your joints, and how you can build strength going forward.