What Is Post-Traumatic Arthritis?
Post-traumatic arthritis is a type of arthritis that occurs after an injury or damage to a joint. It is a type of osteoarthritis, the most common type of arthritis. Post-traumatic arthritis causes about 12 percent of all cases of osteoarthritis, or about 5.6 million people in the United States.
The ends of the bones that make up joints are wrapped in smooth tissue called articular cartilage. This cartilage allows the bones in joints to glide smoothly together and prevents the bones from grinding against each other. Osteoarthritis is the wearing away of this articular cartilage. This can eventually result in painful bone-on-bone contact.
Causes and Risk Factors
Post-traumatic arthritis develops after an injury to a joint. These can include:
- Automobile accidents
- Sports injuries
Post-traumatic arthritis can happen after many types of injuries, including fractures, ligament damage (sprains), muscle or tendon damage (strains) or injuries to cartilage, such as meniscus tears. Post-traumatic osteoarthritis develops in 20 to 50 percent or more of cases of joint injuries.
Symptoms of post-traumatic arthritis include:
- Bone spurs
- Cracking or grating sound (crepitus) when the joint moves
- Joint pain
- Swelling of the joint
Diagnosis of post-traumatic arthritis will usually begin with a medical history and physical examination. The medical history is especially important because doctors will want to know about any injuries that could have possibly led to the condition. During a physical exam, the doctor will manipulate the joint in question, looking for signs of pain or other post-traumatic arthritis symptoms.
Soft tissue like articular cartilage does not show up on X-rays, but bone spurs—a common result of bone-on-bone contact—may, indicating the presence of osteoarthritis. X-rays can also be useful in ruling out other causes of joint pain such as fractures.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) scans can show soft tissue, including damage to articular cartilage. These can also be useful in ruling out other causes of pain, such as ligament, tendon or muscle damage. Occasionally, blood tests may be ordered to check for evidence of inflammatory sources of joint pain such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Post-traumatic arthritis, like other forms of arthritis, cannot be cured or reversed, but can be managed. The goal of treatment is to relieve symptoms and stop the condition from worsening.
Treatment begins with conservative, nonsurgical methods. These can include:
- Corticosteroid injections
- Exercise and physical therapy
- Hyaluronic acid injections
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Lifestyle changes, including weight loss
If conservative treatments fail to control pain and other symptoms of post-traumatic arthritis, there are a variety of surgical options available to patients.
Surgical procedures that can help with post-traumatic arthritis treatment include:
- Cartilage grafting—encouraging new articular cartilage to grow
- Joint replacement—replacing damaged bones and cartilage in a joint with plastic or metal parts
- Realignment—Lining up bones in a joint that are out of place (often necessary after a fracture)
If you have experienced a joint injury of any kind and suspect you may have post-traumatic arthritis, schedule an appointment. Our orthopedic specialists can diagnose the cause of your joint pain and create a treatment plan that works for you and your circumstances.