Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis, which describes pain and inflammation in the joints caused by the degeneration of the cartilage in the joints over time. It most commonly affects the hands, knees, hips or spine.

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What is osteoarthritis?

Arthritis is a condition that causes pain and inflammation in joints. There are about 100 types of arthritis. Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common kind. It is a long-term (chronic), degenerative joint disease. Degenerative means that it gets worse over time. It affects mostly middle-aged and older adults. OA causes the breakdown of joint cartilage. It can occur in any joint, but it most often affects the hands, knees, hips or spine.

osteoarthritis vs. rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and osteoarthritis (OA) are the most common types of arthritis. While they share some similarities, there are also several key differences between the two conditions.

RA is a chronic autoimmune condition that causes inflammation in the joints. This can lead to pain, stiffness, and swelling. RA can also affect other parts of the body, such as the lungs and heart. OA, on the other hand, is a degenerative condition that occurs when the cartilage between the joints breaks down. This can cause pain, stiffness, and limited mobility.

Learn more about rheumatoid arthritis.

What causes osteoarthritis?

OA can be called primary or secondary. Primary OA has no known cause. Secondary OA is caused by another disease, infection, injury or deformity. OA begins with the breakdown of cartilage in the joint. As the cartilage wears down, the bone ends may thicken and form bony growths. These growths are called bone spurs. Bone spurs can limit joint movement. Bits of bone and cartilage may float in the joint space. Fluid-filled cysts may form in the bone. These can also limit joint movement.

Who is at risk for osteoarthritis?

The risk factors of OA include:

  • Heredity. Some genetic problems may lead to OA. These include slight joint defects or joints that are too loose (laxity).

  • Extra weight. Being overweight or obese can put stress on such joints as the knees over time.

Injury or overuse. Severe injury to a joint, such as the knee, can lead to OA. Injury may also result from overuse or misuse over time.

What are the symptoms of osteoarthritis?

The most common symptom of OA is pain after overuse or inactivity of a joint. Symptoms usually happen slowly over years. Symptoms can occur a bit differently in each person. They may include:

  • Joint pain.

  • Joint stiffness, especially after sleeping or inactivity.

  • Less movement in the joint over time.

  • A grinding feeling in the joint when moved, as the cartilage wears away (in more advanced stages).

The symptoms of OA can be like other health conditions. Make sure to see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is osteoarthritis diagnosed?

The process starts with a health history and a physical exam. You may also have X-rays. This test uses a small amount of radiation to create images of bone and other body tissues.

How is osteoarthritis treated?

Treatment will depend on your symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is. The goal of treatment is to ease joint pain and stiffness and improve joint movement. Treatment may include:

  • Exercise. Regular exercise may help ease pain and other symptoms. This may include stretching and strength exercises.

  • Heat treatment. Treating the joint with heat may help ease pain.

  • Physical and occupational therapy. These types of therapy may help to ease joint pain, improve joint flexibility and reduce joint strain. You may use splints and other assistive devices.  

  • Weight maintenance. Keeping a healthy weight or losing weight if needed may help to prevent or ease symptoms.

  • Medicines. These may include pain relievers and anti-inflammatory medicines. You might take these by mouth as a pill or you may rub them on your skin in a cream.

  • Injections of thick liquids into the joints. These liquids mimic normal joint fluid.

  • Joint surgery. You may need surgery to repair or replace a joint that has severe damage.

Talk with your healthcare providers about the risks, benefits and possible side effects of all treatments.

What are the possible complications of osteoarthritis?

Because OA causes joints to get worse over time, it can cause disability. It can cause pain and movement problems. These can make you less able to do normal daily activities and tasks.

Living with osteoarthritis

Although there is no cure for OA, it is important to help keep joints functioning. You can ease pain and inflammation. Work on a treatment plan with your healthcare provider. The plan may include medicine and therapy. Work on lifestyle changes that can improve your quality of life. These may include:

  • Losing weight. Extra weight puts more stress on weight-bearing joints, such as the hips and knees.

  • Exercising. Some exercises may help ease joint pain and stiffness. These include swimming, walking, low-impact aerobic exercise and range-of-motion exercises. Stretching exercises may also help keep the joints flexible.

  • Balancing activity and rest. To reduce stress on your joints, alternate between activity and rest. This can help protect your joints and ease your symptoms.

  • Using assistive devices. Canes, crutches and walkers can help to keep stress off certain joints and improve balance.

  • Using adaptive equipment. Reachers and grabbers allow you to extend your reach and reduce straining. Dressing aids help people get dressed more easily.

  • Managing use of medicines. Long-term use of some anti-inflammatory medicines can lead to stomach bleeding. Work with your healthcare provider to develop a plan to reduce this risk.

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