Subchondral sclerosis is one of the most common complications seen with osteoarthritis. Though it’s extremely common, not many lay people have heard of subchondral sclerosis, or know what it does. Even with my own background in health and medical topics, I’d never heard of it until my over-50 husband started having major issues with osteoarthritis in his knees, hips and back. Basically, subchondral sclerosis describes a thickening or hardening of the layer of bone that’s directly under the cartilage layer in damaged joints. This thick layer shows up on the same imaging that your doctor may do to check the cartilage thickness in affected joints.
What is osteoarthritis doing to your joints?
There are hundreds of types of arthritis, but osteoarthritis is the most common by far. A large number of individuals over 60 experience some form of osteoarthritis, and many experience pain and discomfort from arthritis in their 40s. Osteoarthritis is potentially crippling without the right treatment. It may start as stiffness and discomfort, but eventually can get much more painful and cause irreparable damage to your joints.
Essentially, osteoarthritis is the result of repetitive movements and excessive stress that wears down the cartilage in your joints over time. When the cartilage layer gets thin enough, the tissues in and around the joint swell and become even more prone to damage. If it persists long enough, the cartilage can wear away completely and leave bone grinding against bone.
How does osteoarthritis cause subchondral bone sclerosis?
Osteosclerosis – that is, hardening of the bone – occurs for a number of reasons. Trauma is a top cause, including the trauma that damaged joints go through with moderate osteoarthritis. It can be the result of compacted bone tissue, or from overactive osteoblasts (the cells responsible for creating bone) stimulated by the extra blood supply around the swelling. At the same time, osteoblasts (the cells that destroy old bone) continue working at the same rate. Subchondral sclerosis may result from one or both of these conditions.
Why is subchondral sclerosis bad for the joints?
Osteoarthritis is already damaging to the joints, but additional complications like subchondral sclerosis introduce a whole new set of issues. Bear in mind that the additional density is likely made up of a large portion of old or dead cells. Even if all the cells were alive, that density fills in the bone matrix. Under a microscope, bone is a porous and flexible material; this allows it to withstand high levels of stress without breaking. With this matrix impacted, the areas affected by subchondral sclerosis are more likely to be brittle and fracture easily, and less likely to withstand the impact from normal activities.
Is there a way to slow down subchondral bone sclerosis and osteoarthritis?
Unlike many other types of arthritis, osteoarthritis does not appear to be the result of an autoimmune issue or other disease process. It seems to be almost exclusively the result of wear and tear over time. Osteoarthritis can also set in as a long-term effect of injury, especially repeated injury such as you might get in sports. You can’t do much for your joints once they’re damaged. Luckily, there are quite a few things you can do to reduce damage before it takes its toll.
Nothing is more damaging to your joints than excessive weight. According to studies, every pound you carry over a normal healthy weight for your body type adds the equivalent of four pounds of stress on your joints in each step. In other words, just 10 extra pounds could account for an added 40 pounds of stress in every single step. That’s a lot of extra weight. At the same time, this weight can be wreaking havoc on the health of your organs and circulatory system. In other words, huge health issues can be alleviated or avoided by maintaining a healthy diet and exercise regimen. Sufficient water intake also helps keep your tissues and synovial fluid (the cushioning fluid in your joints) healthy.
Talk to a doctor who specializes in joint health. There may be minor things you can change about how you move that can reduce wear and tear on your joints. Ask about exercises that are osteoarthritis friendly – you don’t have to sacrifice physical fitness just because your joints are starting to show some wear. In addition, studies show that exercise is absolutely critical for toning the muscles that support each joint, as well as promoting good circulation of all bodily fluids.
Remember that while osteoarthritis is common with age, it doesn’t have to significantly impact your quality of life. Take preventative measures and discuss treatments for already damaged areas with your doctor. If subchondral sclerosis has already set in, these may help prevent further compaction and reduce the risk of fractures.