Osteoarthritis or arthritis of the acromioclavicular joint is a degenerative condition caused by chronic inflammation, which leads to severe pain and loss of function.
Together with the glenohumeral joint, the acromioclavicular joint (AC) is an important joint for the function of the shoulder. The AC joint is situated where the collarbone (clavicle) meets the tip of the shoulder bone (acromion). Various forms of arthritis can affect the AC joint mostly due to wear and tear and chronic inflammation. The pathology of AC arthritis depends on the form of arthritis, which can be divided in three major types:
Osteoarthritis affects ageing adults and is a degenerative condition caused by slow degeneration of the articular cartilage on the bone surface.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic, systemic autoimmune inflammatory disease, which erodes the joint lining or synovium. It usually involves several joints of the body in people of any age.
Post-traumatic arthritis occurs subsequently to an injury to the bone, such as a fracture or dislocation of the shoulder.
The main aetiology of AC Arthritis is overuse of the shoulder in ageing individuals and active sportsmen/women. Weightlifters, other athletes or workers who repeatedly lift heavy weight with overhead movement are particularly prone to develop AC arthritis. It can also develop as a degenerative pathology following bone injury. Pre-existing, congenital autoimmune arthritis can include, amongst other joints, also the deterioration of the AC joint.
The risk to acquire shoulder osteoarthritis is higher in individuals practicing heavy object lifting, including recreational weight-lifting and professions that involve overhead work. A previous dislocation of the AC joint can also predispose to AC joint arthritis.
In AC joint arthritis increasing pain progresses over time and is mostly located on the front side of the shoulder joint. It is heightened with the movement of the arm across the chest due to the compression of the joint. It can manifest at rest and during sleep. The range of movement of the shoulder is reduced mostly when lifting the arm over the head. These symptoms can be associated with pain to other joints in rheumatoid arthritis or following major trauma. A bump over the AC joint can also appear. Clicking or snapping noises can be heard during movements.
During clinical consultation the medical history of the patient is recorded and followed by the physical investigation. Tests are performed to assess the limitation in the range of movements of the shoulder by gently pulling the arm of the affected side across the chest. This results in acute pain. Appearance of deformities, swelling, external injuries and tenderness at touch are established. X-ray is the first diagnostic tool to detect cartilage degeneration, presence of bone spurs and associated injuries (fracture of the clavicle or other parts of the shoulder joint). Pain usually disappears when using local anaesthetics.
Nonoperative treatment includes rest, application of ice/heat pads, oral administration of NSAIDs and local injection of steroids when the symptoms are significant.
If conservative treatment is unsuccessful, arthroscopic or open surgery is recommended. Resection arthroplasty aims to remove a fragment of the edge of the clavicle to create more space in the joint and restore mobility.
Up to four weeks post-surgery, it is advised to use a sling to support the shoulder. Immediately after surgery a gentle physiotherapy can commence to strengthen the muscles around the shoulder and restore joint flexibility. This is followed by tailored exercise program at home.
A number of methods are advised to maintain a healthy shoulder once AC arthritis has been diagnosed and treated. They include the interruption of contact sport activities; restriction of overhead work, weight lifting, and avoidance of extreme arm movements. Prevention is assisted by a regular exercise to keep the muscle tone and shoulder flexibility.