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What is osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis, sometimes called OA, is a type of arthritis that only affects the joints, usually in the hands, knees, hips, neck, and lower back. It's the most common type of arthritis.
In a healthy joint, the ends of the bones are covered with a smooth, slippery tissue called cartilage. The cartilage pads the bones and helps them glide easily when you move the joint. With osteoarthritis, the cartilage breaks down and becomes rough. Sometimes, all the cartilage wears away and the bones rub together. Bumps of extra bone called bone spurs may grow in the joint area.
There is no cure for osteoarthritis. It usually gets worse slowly. But there's a lot you can do to manage the symptoms.
What are the symptoms of osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis affects people in different ways, and not everyone has pain. The most common symptoms are:
- Pain when you move, which often gets better with rest
- Stiffness, especially for the first 30 minutes after you get up from resting
- Swollen joints, especially after using the joint a lot
- Less movement in the joint than normal
- A joint that feels loose or unstable
What causes osteoarthritis?
Researchers aren't sure what causes osteoarthritis. They think that it could be caused by a combination of factors in the body and the environment. Your chance of developing osteoarthritis increases with age. They also know that some people are more likely to develop it than others.
Who is more likely to develop osteoarthritis?
Things that make you more likely to develop osteoarthritis include:
- Aging. Osteoarthritis can happen at any age, but the chance of getting it increases in middle-aged adults and older. After age 50, it is more common in women than in men.
- Being overweight. Extra weight puts more stress on your joints.
- Having a past injury or surgery on a joint. This is often the cause of osteoarthritis in younger adults.
- Doing a lot of activities that overuse the joint. This includes sports with a lot of jumping, twisting, running, or throwing.
- Having a joint that doesn't line up correctly.
- A family history of osteoarthritis. Some people inherit genetic changes that increase their chance of developing osteoarthritis.
How is osteoarthritis diagnosed?
There is no specific test for osteoarthritis. 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 your 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, especially in your hips or knees
- Braces or shoe inserts (orthotics) that a health care provider fits for you
You can buy some pain relievers and arthritis creams without a prescription. They can be helpful, but it's best to talk to your provider about using them. If they don't help enough, your provider may prescribe injections (shots) into the joint or prescription pain relievers.
Complementary therapies may help some people. 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. You and your provider can decide if it's right for you.
NIH: National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases
Diagnosis and Tests
- Bone X-Ray (Radiography) (American College of Radiology; Radiological Society of North America) Also in Spanish
- Erythrocyte Sedimentation Rate (ESR) (National Library of Medicine) Also in Spanish
- MRI of the Musculoskeletal System (American College of Radiology; Radiological Society of North America) Also in Spanish
- Synovial Fluid Analysis (National Library of Medicine) Also in Spanish
Treatments and Therapies
- 6 Things You Should Know about Dietary Supplements for Osteoarthritis (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
- Acupuncture: What You Need to Know (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
- Complementary Health Approaches for Osteoarthritis (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
- Glucosamine and Chondroitin for Osteoarthritis (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
- Hip Replacement: MedlinePlus Health Topic (National Library of Medicine) Also in Spanish
- Knee Replacement: MedlinePlus Health Topic (National Library of Medicine) Also in Spanish
- Shoulder Joint Replacement (American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons)
- Tai Chi: What You Need to Know (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
- Tibial osteotomy - slideshow (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- Living with Arthritis (American Occupational Therapy Association) - PDF
- Arthritis of the Thumb (American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons)
- Arthritis of the Wrist (American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons)
- Degenerative Changes in the Spine: Is This Arthritis? (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research) Also in Spanish
- Osteoarthritis of the Foot and Ankle (American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons) Also in Spanish
- Osteoarthritis of the Hand (American Society for Surgery of the Hand) Also in Spanish
- Thumb Arthritis (American Society for Surgery of the Hand) Also in Spanish
- Osteoarthritis: MedlinePlus Genetics (National Library of Medicine)
Statistics and Research
- Arthritis by the Numbers: Book of Trusted Facts and Figures (Arthritis Foundation) - PDF
- FastStats: Arthritis (National Center for Health Statistics)
- ClinicalTrials.gov: Osteoarthritis (National Institutes of Health)
Journal Articles References and abstracts from MEDLINE/PubMed (National Library of Medicine)
- Article: Endoscopic Surgical Treatment of Osteoarthritis and Prognostic Model Construction.
- Article: Effects of complex spa therapy in patients with osteoarthritis of the...
- Article: Intra-articular triamcinolone hexacetonide injections in hands osteoarthritis ‒ A double-blinded randomized...
- Osteoarthritis -- see more articles
- Arthritis Glossary (Boston University)
Find an Expert
- Arthritis Foundation: Local Office Directory (Arthritis Foundation)
- Find a Rheumatologist (American College of Rheumatology)
- National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases Also in Spanish