Living with osteoarthritis may sometimes be part of the natural aging process, but it doesn't have to be painful. Physicians are diagnosing this form of arthritis earlier through more advanced screening methods and are offering a variety of treatment options to improve quality of life.

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease that currently affects more than 21 million Americans. By the year 2030, it is estimated that number may rise to more than 72 million. The disease causes a breakdown of the cartilage, or the cushion between the joints, through repetitive use over time or as the result of an injury. As the cartilage is worn down, there essentially is less cushion between the joints. Eventually this can lead to pain as the bones in the joint rub together, and that pain can steadily increase as the cartilage and bone deteriorate. The joints most prone to developing osteoarthritis are the hips, knees, feet, spine and fingers.

After aging, the second leading cause of osteoarthritis is obesity. Research shows that there is a direct link between excess body weight and osteoarthritis -- particularly in the weight-bearing joints such as the knees and hips. The joint has to overcompensate for the additional weight placed on it, and this puts more pressure on the cartilage and speeds up the breakdown.

"We are finding that controlling your weight is a huge factor in controlling osteoarthritis," says Dr. Sidney Raymond, an East Jefferson General Hospital Internal Medicine specialist. "Taking unnecessary pressure off the joints will only help the long-term health of the joint."

If you are experiencing joint pain or stiffness, your physician can conduct tests for a proper diagnosis. Your doctor may extract fluid from the joint, use an X-ray or other imaging techniques, or run a blood test to exclude other possible causes.

Since there is no cure for osteoarthritis, treatment options focus on managing pain and increasing the function of the joint. For patients with mild to moderate pain who are diagnosed early, simple topical pain relievers and over-the-counter pain medication containing acetaminophen may be recommended. If a certain activity is causing the pain, you should stop or decrease that activity to rest the joint. For more advanced stages of osteoarthritis, physical therapy, support devices or injections into the joint with pain relieving medications may be recommended. More advanced cases may require surgery to partially or fully replace the affected joint.

The best way to avoid joint pain and perhaps slow down the effects of osteoarthritis is to take care of yourself. Eating a proper diet and managing your weight will take pressure off of your joints and will improve your overall health. Moderate exercise such as walking or swimming can help strengthen the muscles around the joint, adding to its stability. Your physician can provide an exercise routine suited to your specific situation.

"Simply being active is a big part of staying healthy," says Raymond. "Although exercise does place some wear and tear on the joint, the benefits far outweigh not being active. You just need to be conscious of the type of activities you do and be careful to not overdo it."