Osteoarthritis (OA) affects more than
one-third of adults over the age of 65. A significant fraction of younger
adults also suffer from OA symptoms.
OA occurs when cartilage begins to break down from age or
heavy use. Cartilage normally covers the ends of bones and allows them to move
freely against each other. The degeneration of cartilage exposes the bones of
the joint and allows bone-on-bone contact. This can cause:
- reduced range of
- changes in joint appearance
Osteoarthritis can affect any joint in your body, but the
most commonly affected areas are:
- lower back
Not all joint pain and stiffness is caused by OA. Rheumatoid
arthritis (RA) can cause similar pain, but there are a number of physical
findings that differentiate RA, an inflammatory disease, from OA. One readily
visible difference is that RA, unlike OA, is typically symmetrical. If it
affects a joint on one side of the body, it will generally affect the same
joint on the other.
The symptoms of OA vary from person to person. Some people
may only have mild pain and swelling. Others may experience joint damage that
significantly affects their quality of life.
OA of the knees, in particular, is a major cause of disability in the
For most people with OA, stiffness is usually worse in the
mornings. It is usually also worse after long periods of inactivity or rest. At
these times, joints may feel:
Soreness and aching pain are common symptoms of OA. Muscle
pain can also occur in the surrounding tissue. Usually, pain, like stiffness,
is most intense after sleep or a period of inactivity.
Some people with OA feel more pain during movement of the
joints and less pain when at rest. Over time, the pain may occur even when the
joints are not used.
Joint tenderness, sensitivity of the joints to touch, can
also occur in people with OA.
Pain and tenderness can be caused by:
- bones rubbing against
- inflammation in the
- bone spurs (bony
- pinched nerves caused
by swelling and displacement of joint tissue
Swelling is more common in people with RA than OA. However,
people with OA also experience swelling. Swelling is the body’s reaction to
irritants, such as bone-on-bone contact. It contributes to the stiffness and pain experienced by patients
Loss of Flexibility and Range of Motion
According to the CDC, about 80
percent of people with OA have some problem with range of motion. A quarter need
assistance with daily living activities. They may need help with:
- putting on shoes
- getting in and out of
- climbing stairs
Bone spurs are small bony projections. They can occur
naturally, but they may also be a response to inflammation in a joint. Bone
spurs, also called osteophytes, can sometime be felt as hard little lumps
around joints affected by OA. They are not painful in and of themselves.
However, bone spurs can rub against nearby nerve and bone, causing additional
People with OA often have to exert extra physical effort in
order to carry out the basic daily tasks of living. This can cause fatigue.
Inflammation is caused by chemical mediators called
cytokines. These can also cause fatigue.
Many people with OA hear sounds in their joints when they
move. Their joints may make noises such as:
These noises are often accompanied by discomfort or
Depression and/or Anxiety
People who suffer from OA are at an increased risk for
anxiety and depression. Chronic pain from OA can cause a great deal
of stress, as can the disability that often results from OA.
Having healthy coping mechanisms in place can reduce the
risk of depression and anxiety caused by OA.
Fever is not generally a symptom of OA. However, extensive
inflammation can cause a low-grade fever.
OA may negatively impact your quality of life. However,
it is usually not a disease that requires urgent or emergency action.
That said, not all joint pain is caused by OA. Joint pain
can also be caused by other, serious health problems. Call your doctor if you
- joint pain lasting
longer than three days
- severe, unexplained
- severe swelling in a
- difficulty moving the
- heat or redness in the
skin around the joint
- fever or unexplained