Post-traumatic arthritis is a type of osteoarthritis that occurs after an injury to the joint. It can develop months or even years after the initial injury and cause significant pain and disability. 

In this article, we’ll discuss what post-traumatic arthritis is, what causes it, common symptoms, and current treatment options.

What is Post-Traumatic Arthritis?

Post-traumatic arthritis, also called post-traumatic osteoarthritis, is a form of osteoarthritis that occurs after an injury to the joint. The injury causes damage to the articular cartilage and surrounding structures. Over time, this damage leads to stiffness, pain, and loss of normal joint function.

Post-traumatic arthritis can occur after various injuries, including fractures, dislocations, ligament tears, and blunt trauma from an accident. It is most commonly seen after injuries to major weight-bearing joints like the knee, hip, ankle, and shoulder. Approximately 12% of all osteoarthritis cases are caused by prior trauma to the joint.

People who sustain joint injuries are over 5 times more likely to develop post-traumatic arthritis than the general population. Certain joints, like the knee, are at an even higher risk. Studies show that individuals who experienced knee injuries are over 12 times more likely to develop arthritis in that knee compared to their uninjured knee.

What Causes Post-Traumatic Arthritis to Develop?

Post-traumatic arthritis occurs due to damage sustained during the initial joint injury. Inflammation and small fractures within the joint can injure the smooth articular cartilage that covers the ends of bones. As this cartilage breaks down, the joint loses its protective shock-absorbing layer.

Over the weeks and months following the injury, an ongoing inflammatory process within the joint continues to damage cartilage. The damaged cartilage is unable to repair itself adequately, which eventually leads to the degenerative changes of arthritis.

It’s important to note that post-traumatic arthritis is not caused by “wear and tear” over time like other forms of the disease. Rather, it occurs as a direct result of acute trauma to the joint. An individual can develop symptoms rapidly or slowly progress through various stages over many years post-injury.

What Are the Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Arthritis?

The hallmark symptoms of post-traumatic arthritis include:

  • Joint pain and swelling
  • Stiffness in the joint
  • Decreased range of motion and flexibility
  • Tenderness to the touch around the joint
  • Joint instability or feeling like the joint will “give out”

The severity of symptoms depends on factors like the location and extent of the initial injury. For example, post-traumatic arthritis in the knee after an ACL tear may cause significant knee pain and difficulty walking, while post-traumatic arthritis in the fingers after a hand injury may cause joint stiffness and reduced grip strength.

When Does Post-Traumatic Arthritis Develop After an Injury?

The onset of post-traumatic arthritis symptoms can vary substantially depending on factors like the severity of the initial injury, age, and the joint affected.

In some cases, symptoms begin within weeks or months of the initial trauma. This early onset of post-traumatic osteoarthritis is more likely after significant joint fractures and dislocations.

However, it’s much more common for post-traumatic arthritis to develop gradually over the years following joint injury. On average, most patients experience their first arthritis symptoms 3-12 years after the initial trauma.

The knee is the joint most vulnerable to post-traumatic arthritis, with symptoms frequently appearing 5-15 years after knee ligament and meniscus tears. Ankle fractures also often progress to arthritis within 1-2 decades. For some joints like the hip and shoulder, the gradual damage builds over many years until it eventually causes enough joint deterioration to produce notable arthritis symptoms.

How is Post-Traumatic Arthritis Diagnosed?

An orthopedic specialist will diagnose post-traumatic arthritis based on a physical exam, medical history, x-rays, and potentially an MRI.

They will ask questions to learn more about prior joint injuries and accidents and thoroughly examine the joint. This includes evaluating its range of motion, alignment, swelling, areas of tenderness, and signs of instability.

Plain X-rays allow the doctor to visualize the joint space narrowing, bone spurs, cysts, and other signs of arthritis. If the x-ray is inconclusive, an MRI can provide additional details related to cartilage, ligaments, tendons, and other soft tissues.

Treatment Options for Post-Traumatic Arthritis

Since post-traumatic arthritis is caused by irreparable joint damage from prior trauma, treatments focus on managing symptoms rather than reversing the arthritis. Some options include:

  • Medications: Anti-inflammatory drugs like NSAIDs help alleviate pain and swelling. Steroid joint injections can temporarily reduce inflammation.
  • Braces: Custom braces stabilize the joint and restrict painful movements. A knee brace with a hinged bar is often used for post-traumatic knee arthritis.
  • Physical therapy: Stretching, strengthening exercises, and modalities like ultrasound and electrical stimulation help support joint function.
  • Weight loss: Losing excess weight reduces stress on weight-bearing joints. Even small amounts of weight loss can provide substantial symptom relief.
  • Assistive devices: Canes, walkers, crutches, or shoe orthotics decrease pain with walking and standing.
  • Lifestyle changes: Avoiding high-impact activities, limiting repetitive joint motions, and pacing activities help prevent symptom flare-ups.
  • Surgery: Severe post-traumatic arthritis that fails to improve with conservative treatment may require surgery like knee/hip replacement or ankle fusion.

If you suffered an injury and now have joint pain, stiffness, and swelling, immediately see an orthopedic specialist. They can diagnose if post-traumatic arthritis is developing and customize an appropriate treatment plan. Early intervention and proper long-term management can help slow the disease progression and allow you to remain active.

Don’t Live with Joint Pain after an Injury

If a car accident injury in West Virginia left you with lingering joint pain and stiffness, post-traumatic arthritis may be the cause. The experienced personal injury lawyers at Miley Legal understand how much this type of arthritis can impact your mobility, activity level, and overall well-being.

Their team can help you get answers about what’s causing your joint problems and ensure you get the proper treatment you need to heal. Don’t wait to address symptoms like swelling, stiffness, and decreased range of motion that don’t go away after an injury. 

Call today for a free case review, and let their team help you find relief from post-traumatic arthritis.