Osteoarthritis (OA) occurs when cartilage that cushions bones at the joints wears away, causing pain, reduced range of motion, and swelling.

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What Is Osteoarthritis?

Cartilage cushions bones at the joints and keeps the bones from rubbing against each other. Osteoarthritis (OA) occurs when this cartilage wears away. The loss of cartilage results in pain, reduced range of motion, and swelling.

The condition is also known as “wear and tear” arthritis. It affects 27 million people in the U.S. and is the most common form of arthritis (Arthritis Foundation, 2013).

Types of Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis can occur in any joint in the body. But it most commonly affects the knees, hips, spine, and hands. About half of people who live to the age of 85 will develop the condition in their knees. One in four may develop it in a hip (Centers for Disease Control, 2013).

What Causes Osteoarthritis?

Little is know about the causes of osteoarthritis. Although it comes with aging and has been called the “wear and tear” disease, genetics and lifestyle factors play a part (University of Maryland Medical Center, 2013).

Who Is at Risk for Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis most commonly occurs in people over 40. Risk increases with age.

People who are overweight are at additional risk.

Other risk factors include having suffered a joint injury, having relatives who have suffered from osteoarthritis, working in a job that requires repetitive movements, and being born with deformed joints. 

What Are the Symptoms of Osteoarthritis?

Symptoms of osteoarthritis include joint pain, stiffness, and swelling. Sometimes a person can even hear or feel the sound of friction between bones. Growths or bumps on a joint also can be an indicator of OA.

Eventually, these factors may contribute to a person having difficulty performing daily tasks. OA can result in an inability to work.

How Is Osteoarthritis Diagnosed?

A doctor can use many tools and procedures to diagnose osteoarthritis:

  • Clinical exam. Your doctor will look for swelling and redness. He or she may evaluate your range of motion and feel for tenderness.
  • Lab work. Performing blood tests or examining a specimen of joint fluid under a microscope can help rule out other conditions.
  • X-rays or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). These tests can show how much cartilage has been lost and reveal bone spurs.

How Is Osteoarthritis Treated?

You can treat osteoarthritis by taking steps to reduce pain, staying as active as possible, and maintaining a healthy weight.


Anti-inflammatory medications can reduce swelling and pain. Sometimes, stronger pain relievers or narcotics are needed. Injecting corticosteroids into the joint is also an option. Topical ointments can be used as well.


Surgery may offer some patients relief from osteoarthritis. Surgery can include the removal of objects disrupting the joint or even replacement of the joint with an artificial device. Sometimes joints are fused together to eliminate flexibility or are realigned to alleviate pressure.

Home Care

There are plenty of ways to make living with osteoarthritis easier. Eating a healthy diet and getting exercise can help you maintain a healthy weight. For each 10 pounds lost over the course of 10 years, the risk of knee osteoarthritis can be reduced by up to 50 percent (American College of Rheumatology, 2012). Exercise also prevents stiffness.

Remember to always sit properly to alleviate pain, or adjust furniture to make yourself more comfortable. Using walking devices or braces may help with mobility. Hot and cold therapy can offer temporary relief.

Alternative Therapies

Sometimes a doctor will recommend vitamins or other nutritional supplements. Muscle or nerve stimulation by electrical impulse, massage, or acupuncture has also been used (National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Diseases, 2013).

Yoga and tai chi can help strengthen muscles and reduce stress (University of Maryland Medical Center, 2013).

What Is the Outlook for Osteoarthritis?

There is no cure for osteoarthritis, but symptoms can effectively be managed.

Written by: David Heitz
Edited by:
Medically Reviewed by: George Krucik, MD, MBA
Published: Nov 14, 2013
Last Updated: Apr 7, 2014
Published By: Healthline Networks, Inc.
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