Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, affecting millions of people worldwide. It occurs when the protective cartilage on the ends of your bones wears down over time.
Although osteoarthritis can damage any joint in your body, the disorder most commonly affects joints in your hands, knees, hips and spine.
Osteoarthritis symptoms can usually be effectively managed, although the underlying process cannot be reversed. Staying active, maintaining a healthy weight and other treatments may slow progression of the disease and help improve pain and joint function.
Osteoarthritis symptoms often develop slowly and worsen over time. Signs and symptoms of osteoarthritis include:
- Pain. Your joint may hurt during or after movement.
- Tenderness. Your joint may feel tender when you apply light pressure to it.
- Stiffness. Joint stiffness may be most noticeable when you wake up in the morning or after a period of inactivity.
- Loss of flexibility. You may not be able to move your joint through its full range of motion.
- Grating sensation. You may hear or feel a grating sensation when you use the joint.
- Bone spurs. These extra bits of bone, which feel like hard lumps, may form around the affected joint.
When to see a doctor
If you have joint pain or stiffness that doesn't go away, make an appointment with your doctor.
Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage that cushions the ends of bones in your joints gradually deteriorates. Cartilage is a firm, slippery tissue that permits nearly frictionless joint motion.
In osteoarthritis, the slick surface of the cartilage becomes rough. Eventually, if the cartilage wears down completely, you may be left with bone rubbing on bone.
Factors that may increase your risk of osteoarthritis include:
- Older age. The risk of osteoarthritis increases with age.
- Sex. Women are more likely to develop osteoarthritis, though it isn't clear why.
- Obesity. Carrying extra body weight contributes to osteoarthritis in several ways, and the more you weigh, the greater your risk. Increased weight puts added stress on weight-bearing joints, such as your hips and knees. In addition, fat tissue produces proteins that may cause harmful inflammation in and around your joints.
- Joint injuries. Injuries, such as those that occur when playing sports or from an accident, may increase the risk of osteoarthritis. Even injuries that occurred many years ago and seemingly healed can increase your risk of osteoarthritis.
- Certain occupations. If your job includes tasks that place repetitive stress on a particular joint, that joint may eventually develop osteoarthritis.
- Genetics. Some people inherit a tendency to develop osteoarthritis.
- Bone deformities. Some people are born with malformed joints or defective cartilage, which can increase the risk of osteoarthritis.
Osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease that worsens over time. Joint pain and stiffness may become severe enough to make daily tasks difficult.
Some people are no longer able to work. When joint pain is this severe, doctors may suggest joint replacement surgery.
During the physical exam, your doctor will closely examine your affected joint, checking for tenderness, swelling or redness, and for range of motion in the joint. Your doctor may also recommend imaging and lab tests.
Pictures of the affected joint can be obtained during imaging tests. Examples include:
- X-rays. Cartilage doesn't show up on X-ray images, but cartilage loss is revealed by a narrowing of the space between the bones in your joint. An X-ray may also show bone spurs around a joint. Some people may have X-ray evidence of osteoarthritis before they experience any symptoms.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An MRI uses radio waves and a strong magnetic field to produce detailed images of bone and soft tissues, including cartilage. An MRI isn't commonly needed to diagnose osteoarthritis but may help provide more information in complex cases.
Analyzing your blood or joint fluid can help confirm the diagnosis.
- Blood tests. Although there is no blood test for osteoarthritis, certain tests may help rule out other causes of joint pain, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
- Joint fluid analysis. Your doctor may use a needle to draw fluid out of the affected joint. Examining and testing the fluid from your joint can determine if there's inflammation and if your pain is caused by gout or an infection.
Currently, the process underlying osteoarthritis cannot be reversed, but symptoms can usually be effectively managed with lifestyle changes, physical and other therapies, medications, and surgery. Exercising and achieving a healthy weight are generally the most important ways to treat osteoarthritis. Your doctor may also suggest:
Osteoarthritis symptoms, primarily pain, may be helped by certain medications, including:
- Acetaminophen. Acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) has been shown to be effective for people with osteoarthritis who have mild to moderate pain. Taking more than the recommended dosage of acetaminophen can cause liver damage.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Over-the-counter NSAIDs, including ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) and naproxen sodium (Aleve, others), taken at the recommended doses, typically relieve osteoarthritis pain. Stronger NSAIDs, available by prescription, may also slightly reduce inflammation along with relieving pain.
NSAIDs can cause stomach upset, cardiovascular problems, bleeding problems, and liver and kidney damage. Topical NSAIDs have fewer side effects and may relieve pain just as well.
- Duloxetine (Cymbalta). Normally used as an antidepressant, this medication is also approved to treat chronic pain, including osteoarthritis pain.
- Physical therapy. A physical therapist can work with you to create an individualized exercise program that will strengthen the muscles around your joint, increase your range of motion and reduce pain. Regular gentle exercise that you do on your own, such as swimming or walking, can be equally effective.
- Occupational therapy. An occupational therapist can help you discover ways to do everyday tasks or do your job without putting extra stress on your already painful joint. For instance, a toothbrush with a large grip could make brushing your teeth easier if you have finger osteoarthritis. A bench in your shower could help relieve the pain of standing if you have knee osteoarthritis.
- Tai chi and yoga. These movement therapies involve gentle exercises and stretches combined with deep breathing. Many people use these therapies to reduce stress in their lives, and research suggests that tai chi and yoga may reduce osteoarthritis pain and improve movement. When led by a knowledgeable instructor, these therapies are safe. Avoid moves that cause pain in your joints.
Surgical and other procedures
If conservative treatments don't help, you may want to consider procedures such as:
- Cortisone injections. Injections of corticosteroid medications may relieve pain in your joint. During this procedure your doctor numbs the area around your joint, then places a needle into the space within your joint and injects medication. The number of cortisone injections you can receive each year is generally limited to three or four injections, because the medication can worsen joint damage over time.
- Lubrication injections. Injections of hyaluronic acid may offer pain relief by providing some cushioning in your knee, though some research suggests these injections offer no more relief than a placebo. Hyaluronic acid is similar to a component normally found in your joint fluid.
- Realigning bones. If osteoarthritis has damaged one side of your knee more than the other, an osteotomy might be helpful. In a knee osteotomy, a surgeon cuts across the bone either above or below the knee, and then removes or adds a wedge of bone. This shifts your body weight away from the worn-out part of your knee.
- Joint replacement. In joint replacement surgery (arthroplasty), your surgeon removes your damaged joint surfaces and replaces them with plastic and metal parts. Surgical risks include infections and blood clots. Artificial joints can wear out or come loose and may need to eventually be replaced.
Various complementary and alternative medicine may help with osteoarthritis symptoms. Treatments that have shown promise for osteoarthritis include:
- Acupuncture. Some studies indicate that acupuncture can relieve pain and improve function in people who have knee osteoarthritis. During acupuncture, hair-thin needles are inserted into your skin at precise spots on your body.
Glucosamine and chondroitin. Studies have been mixed on these nutritional supplements. A few have found benefits for people with osteoarthritis, while most indicate that these supplements work no better than a placebo.
Don't use glucosamine if you're allergic to shellfish. Glucosamine and chondroitin may interact with blood thinners such as warfarin and cause bleeding problems.
- Avocado-soybean unsaponifiables. This nutritional supplement — a mixture of avocado and soybean oils — is widely used in Europe to treat knee and hip osteoarthritis. It acts as an anti-inflammatory, and some studies have shown it may slow down or even prevent joint damage.
Although you may initially bring your concerns to your primary care doctor, he or she may refer you to a doctor who specializes in joint disorders (rheumatologist) or orthopedic surgery.
What you can do
You may want to write a list that includes:
- Detailed descriptions of your symptoms
- Information about medical problems you've had
- Information about the medical problems of your parents or siblings
- All the prescription and over-the-counter medications and dietary supplements you take and the dosages
- Questions you want to ask the doctor
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor may ask some of the following questions:
- When did your joint pain begin?
- Is the pain continuous, or does it come and go?
- Do any particular activities make the pain better or worse?
- Have you ever injured this joint?
Lifestyle changes can make a significant difference in osteoarthritis symptoms. Other home treatments also might help. Some things to try include:
Exercise. Exercise can increase your endurance and strengthen the muscles around your joint, making your joint more stable. Try walking, biking or swimming. If you feel new joint pain, stop.
New pain that lasts for hours after you exercise probably means you've overdone it but doesn't mean you have done any significant damage or that you should stop exercising. Simply resume a day or two later at a slightly lower level of intensity.
Lose weight. Obesity or even being somewhat overweight increases the stress on your weight-bearing joints, such as your knees and your hips. Even a small amount of weight loss can relieve some pressure and reduce your pain.
Talk to a dietitian about healthy ways to lose weight. Most people combine changes in their diets with increased exercise.
- Use heat and cold to manage pain. Both heat and cold can relieve pain in your joint. Heat also relieves stiffness, and cold can relieve muscle spasms and pain.
- Capsaicin. Topical capsaicin — an active component in hot chili peppers — applied over an arthrititic joint may be an alternative for people who can't take NSAIDs. It may not be noticeably helpful unless consistently applied three to four times a day for several weeks. Be sure to wash your hands well after applying capsaicin cream.
Apply over-the-counter pain creams. Creams and gels available at drugstores may provide temporary relief from osteoarthritis pain. Some creams numb the pain by creating a hot or cool sensation.
Other creams contain medications, such as aspirin-like compounds, that are absorbed into your skin. Pain creams work best on joints that are close to the surface of your skin, such as your knees and fingers.
- Braces or shoe inserts. Your doctor may recommend shoe inserts or other devices that can help reduce pain when you stand or walk. These devices can immobilize or support your joint to help take pressure off it.
- Knee taping. Strapping tape may help ease the pain of knee osteoarthritis. Ask a doctor or physical therapist to demonstrate how best to place the tape.
Use assistive devices. Assistive devices can make it easier to go about your day without stressing your painful joint. A cane may take weight off your knee or hip as you walk. Carry the cane in the hand opposite the leg that hurts.
Gripping and grabbing tools may make it easier to work in the kitchen if you have osteoarthritis in your fingers. Your doctor or occupational therapist may have ideas about what sorts of assistive devices may be helpful to you. Catalogs and medical supply stores also may be places to look for ideas.
Lifestyle changes and certain treatments are key to managing pain and disability, but another major component to treatment is your own outlook on life. Your ability to cope despite pain and disability caused by osteoarthritis often determines how much of an impact osteoarthritis will have on your everyday life. Talk to your doctor if you're feeling frustrated, because he or she may have ideas about how to cope or refer you to someone who can help.