Health Conditions A-Z Rheumatic Conditions Osteoarthritis What Is Osteoarthritis? By Tahirah Chichester, MPH Tahirah Chichester, MPH Tahirah is a public health professional with more than 10 years experience supporting people along various stages of their health journey. She has a Master of Public Health in epidemiology and biostatistics from Temple University. health's editorial guidelines Published on May 1, 2023 Medically reviewed by Anita C. Chandrasekaran, MD Medically reviewed by Anita C. Chandrasekaran, MD Anita C. Chandrasekaran, MD, MPH, is a rheumatologist at Hartford Healthcare Medical Group in Connecticut. She is board-certified in both rheumatology and internal medicine. learn more Share this page on Facebook Share this page on Twitter Share this page on Pinterest Email this page In This Article View All In This Article Symptoms Causes Diagnosis Treatments Prevention Complications Living With Osteoarthritis FAQs Osteoarthritis is the most common joint condition that occurs when the cartilage (the connective tissue surrounding the bones) around a joint gradually breaks down over time. When the cartilage breaks down, the remaining cartilage and bones rub together, causing symptoms such as joint pain, swelling, and stiffness in the knees, hips, neck, and hands. Researchers don’t know what exactly causes osteoarthritis, but risk factors like age, previous joint injury, and joint overuse may increase your risk of developing the condition. At this time, there is no cure for osteoarthritis. But, drug and non-drug treatment options are available to help you better manage your symptoms. Your exact treatment plan will depend on the severity of your condition and the symptoms you are experiencing. Symptoms Osteoarthritis is a degenerative (progressively declining) joint condition that often begins slowly, affecting one or a few joints at first. Most people living with osteoarthritis start having symptoms after 40 years old. Although symptoms may vary person to person, common symptoms include: Pain that worsens with activity and is relieved by rest Stiffness, especially in the morning Swelling or fluid retention Popping, clicking, or cracking sounds when you bend your joints Changes in joint shape Loss of mobility or flexibility Muscle weakness Symptoms of osteoarthritis commonly appear in the fingers, feet, knees, hip, and spine. Joints that are less likely to be affected by osteoarthritis symptoms are the elbows, wrists, shoulders, and ankles. Causes Your cartilage is a firm, rubbery tissue that cushions and protects your bones at the joints. A joint is where two bones meet or make contact. When a person develops osteoarthritis, the cartilage breaks down and wears away over time. As a result, the remaining pieces of cartilage or bones rub together, leading to painful symptoms. Researchers aren’t sure what exactly causes osteoarthritis. But, they have found that some factors increase your risk of developing the condition. Most people with osteoarthritis have one or more of the following risk factors: Age: Osteoarthritis can happen at any age, but your chance of developing the condition increases around 55 years or older. Sex: Women are two to three times more likely to develop osteoarthritis than men. Obesity: Extra weight can add stress to your hips and knees. Genetics: Your risk for osteoarthritis increases if you have a family history of the condition. Occupation: Working certain jobs like dock work, carpentry, farm work, and construction may increase your risk of developing symptoms. Injury: Having a previous injury or trauma to your joints increases the risk of osteoarthritis in those joints in the future. Congenital conditions: Being born with a condition such as scoliosis or hip dysplasia can also increase your risk. Can You Get Osteoarthritis as a Young Adult? Diagnosis There is no single test that can diagnose osteoarthritis alone. That said, your healthcare provider will take a thorough medical history to learn about your symptoms and order a number of tests to help confirm a diagnosis. During your appointment, you can expect your provider to ask you questions such as: What symptoms are you experiencing? When did the joint pain begin? Do you have a family history of a joint disease? Have you ever had a joint injury or broken a bone? Does the pain happen only with activity or also with rest? Is the pain continuous or does it come and go? Does anything make the pain better? The information from these questions can help your provider guide the next steps. In this case, they may order one or more of the following tests to confirm a diagnosis or rule out other health conditions: Physical exam: Assesses your general health, reflexes, and joints X-rays: Checks for bone damage and bone spurs Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): Shows signs of soft tissue damage in and around the joints Blood tests: Helps rule out other conditions (like gout or rheumatoid arthritis) that cause symptoms similar to osteoarthritis Synovial (joint) fluid analysis: Uses a sample of your joint fluid to look for infections or other illnesses that may be causing your symptoms Treatments There is no cure for osteoarthritis, but drugs and non-drug therapies can help you manage your condition. Your healthcare provider will create a treatment plan based on your medical history, the severity of your symptoms, and your specific needs. The goals of treatment are to: Reduce joint pain Improve joint function and mobility Maintain your quality of life Prevent osteoarthritis-related disability or complications Non-drug Therapies Non-drug therapies are the first treatments that your provider will recommend. These therapies include: Physical therapy and exercise programs that include range-of-motion, stretching, and strengthening exercises Use of braces, splints, and orthotics to reduce joint pain Assistive devices such as canes, walkers, raised toilet seats, and shower bars which can make daily activities more accessible Weight loss (if needed) to reduce stress on your joints Drug Therapies Generally, your provider will prescribe medication in conjunction with non-drug therapies. They may recommend one of the following drug therapies: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): Topical or oral medications such as Advil (ibuprofen), Aleve (naproxen), and Celebrex (celecoxib) can relieve pain and reduce inflammationAcetaminophen: Medications such as Tylenol may improve symptomsGlucocorticoid injections: Steroid injections into the joint can provide short-term pain reliefNeuropathic agents: Medicines such as Lyrica (pregabalin) or Yentreve (duloxetine) that may help reduce nerve pain Surgery If you have severe joint damage because of your condition, surgery may be an option for you. This is especially true if drug and non-drug therapies have not improved your symptoms and your joint damage is limiting your daily activities. Surgery options include: Arthroscopic surgery to remove torn or damaged cartilageRealignment surgery to relieve stress on the bone or jointJoint fusion Partial or total joint replacement Gentle Exercises for People With Arthritis How to Prevent Osteoarthritis Flares If you are living with osteoarthritis, you may experience a period of time when your symptoms are more intense. These moments of increased pain, stiffness, and swelling are known as flares or flare-ups. It’s not possible to prevent osteoarthritis altogether. However, there are some things you can do to reduce the pain associated with osteoarthritis flare-ups, such as: Practicing muscle relaxation and stress reduction techniques Learning how to exercise safely Pacing your daily tasks with light activity and planned rest breaks Protecting your joints from injury Limiting repetitive movements that may aggravate your joints Complications People living with osteoarthritis may experience complications as their condition progresses. In addition to ongoing pain, other complications may include: Increased risk of falls Difficulty walking or moving around Decreased range of motion of the joint Injury or damage to nerve roots in the spine (a condition known as radiculopathies) Complications caused by osteoarthritis can lead to challenges with everyday activities like completing household chores or keeping up with personal hygiene. With treatment, your ability to complete everyday tasks can improve over time. Living With Osteoarthritis Osteoarthritis is a progressive joint disorder that affects everyone differently based on which joints are affected and the severity of your symptoms. Some people with mild osteoarthritis may not be affected by their symptoms at all, while others may experience severe disability. That's why treatment options for osteoarthritis can vary. Living with osteoarthritis can feel limiting, difficult, and draining. It's important to follow your treatment plan and implement lifestyle changes when you can, such as: Alternating hot and cold compresses to relieve joint pain Using assistive devices to help move around safely Engaging in gentle, low-impact exercises such as walking, tai chi, or swimming Finding support groups that can offer tips on how to cope with osteoarthritis Asking your loved ones for physical and emotional support when you need it Frequently Asked Questions Can anything reverse osteoarthritis? No, damage done by osteoarthritis cannot be reversed. However, drug and non-drug treatments can help slow disease progression. What climate is worst for osteoarthritis? Some people living with osteoarthritis may experience worsening symptoms with colder or frigid temperatures. What causes osteoarthritis flare-ups? Repetitive movements such as frequent bending or overdoing activity without adequate rest can aggravate your joints and cause an osteoarthritis flare-up. What time of day is osteoarthritis worse? Osteoarthritis joint pain tends to be worse in the morning. This is known as morning stiffness. Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! Tell us why! Other Submit 11 Sources Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. Doherty M, Abhishek A. Patient education: Osteoarthritis symptoms and diagnosis (beyond the basics). In: Post TW. 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