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What is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis (also known as OA) is a common joint disease that most often affects middle-age to elderly people. It is commonly referred to as "wear and tear" of the joints, but OA is a disease of the entire joint, involving the cartilage, joint lining, ligaments, and bone.

Although it is more common in older people, it is not really accurate to say that the joints are just “wearing out.” It is characterized by breakdown of the cartilage (the tissue that cushions the ends of the bones between joints), bony changes of the joints, deterioration of tendons and ligaments, and various degrees of inflammation of the joint lining (called the synovium).

This arthritis tends to occur in the hand joints as well as the spine, hips, knees, and toes. OA is a top cause of disability in older people. The goal of osteoarthritis treatment is to reduce pain and improve function. There is no cure for the disease, but some treatments may slow disease progression.

Fast Facts

  • Though some of the joint changes are irreversible, most patients will not need joint replacement surgery.

  • Osteoarthritis (OA) symptoms can vary greatly among patients.

  • The goal of treatment in OA is to reduce pain and improve function.

  • Exercise is an important part of OA treatment, it can decrease joint pain and improve function.

  • At present, there is no treatment that can reverse the damage of OA in the joints. Researchers are trying to find ways to slow or reverse this joint damage.

  • Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common chronic joint condition.

  • A joint is where two bones come together. Cartilage is the protective tissue that covers the ends of the bones. With OA, this cartilage breaks down, causing the bones within the joint to rub together. This can cause pain, stiffness, and other symptoms.


Osteoarthritis symptoms often develop slowly and worsen over time. Signs and symptoms of osteoarthritis include:

  • Pain. Affected joints might hurt during or after movement.

  • Stiffness. Joint stiffness might be most noticeable upon awakening or after being inactive.

  • Tenderness. Your joint might feel tender when you apply light pressure to or near it.

  • Loss of flexibility. You might not be able to move your joint through its full range of motion.

  • Grating sensation. You might feel a grating sensation when you use the joint, and you might hear popping or crackling.

  • Bone spurs. Extra bits of bone that feel like hard lumps can form around the affected joint.

  • Swelling. This might be caused by soft tissue inflammation around the joint.

Risk factors

Factors that can increase your risk of osteoarthritis include:

  • Older age. The risk of osteoarthritis increases with age.

  • Gender. Women are more likely to develop osteoarthritis.

  • Obesity. Carrying extra body weight contributes to osteoarthritis in several ways. The more you weigh, the greater your risk. Fat tissue produces proteins that can cause harmful inflammation in and around your joints.

  • Joint injuries. Injuries, such as those that occur when playing sports or from an accident, can increase the risk of osteoarthritis. Even injuries that occurred many years ago and seemingly healed can increase your risk of osteoarthritis.

  • Repeated stress on the joint. If your job or a sport you play places repetitive stress on a joint, that joint might eventually develop osteoarthritis.

  • Genetics. Some people inherit a tendency to develop osteoarthritis.

  • Bone deformities. Some people are born with malformed joints or defective cartilage.

  • Certain metabolic diseases. These include diabetes and a condition in which your body has too much iron (hemochromatosis).

How is osteoarthritis diagnosed?

To find out if you have osteoarthritis, your provider:

  • Will ask about your symptoms and medical history

  • Will do a physical exam

  • May use x-rays or other imaging tests to look at your joints

  • May order lab tests to make sure that a different problem isn't causing your symptoms

What are the treatments for osteoarthritis?

The goal of treating osteoarthritis is to ease pain, help you move better, and stop it from getting worse. Treatment usually begins with:

  • Exercises to improve strength, flexibility and balance.

  • Weight loss, if needed, to improve pain.

  • Over-the-count pain relievers and arthritis creams. These can be helpful, but it's best to consult a doctor about using them. If they don't help enough, you may require injections (shots) into the joint or prescription pain relievers.

  • Complementary therapies such as massage can increase blood flow and bring warmth to the area.

  • Some research shows that acupuncture may help relieve osteoarthritis pain.

  • Simple things like heat and ice can help, too.

  • If none of these treatments help enough, surgery may be an option.

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease that worsens over time, often resulting in chronic pain. Joint pain and stiffness can become severe enough to make daily tasks difficult.


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