If OA is detected early – or at least earlier – then patients can get treatment sooner and treatment progress could be better monitored, potentially leading to better outcomes.

Several methods for diagnosing OA earlier are being tested by researchers, including the detection of biochemical markers, an assessment of the biomechanics and gait of a patient, and the use of a type of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) called quantitative MRI instead of the less accurate X-rays.

Biochemical Markers. Cytokines, enzymes, antibodies and other markers are detectable in a patient even before pain is present or the OA can be discovered through an X-ray or traditional MRI. A large study of biomarkers is under way to look at OA progression.

Biomechanical Assessments. Measurements of a person’s walking gait might provide important markers for OA progression and an objective measurement of pain. Current studies are assessing the efficacy of two measures involving knee movement. 

Imaging Tools. X-rays can show whether the space between joints has narrowed – an indication of OA. But it doesn’t provide detailed enough information about joint integrity, and results show up only when OA is advanced. Quantitative MRI provides noninvasive, early detection of OA.

The importance of these indicators goes beyond the care of any individual patient. Currently, the FDA accepts only X-rays findings in OA studies. There is hope the agency will change its requirements – based on the studies mentioned above – to incorporate these new assessment tools, thus opening the door to new OA treatments.