Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common chronic joint condition. OA is also called wear-and-tear arthritis, degenerative arthritis, and degenerative joint disease.
A joint is where two bones come together. Cartilage is the protective tissue that covers the ends of the bones. With OA, this cartilage breaks down, causing the bones within the joint to rub together. This can cause pain, stiffness, and other symptoms.
OA can occur in any joint. However, the most commonly affected areas of the body include the:
- spine, typically at the neck or lower back
OA occurs most often in older people, although it can occur in adults of any age.
OA is a leading cause of disability. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source says that it affects more than 32.5 million adults in the United States. Here’s everything you need to know about OA, from treatment to prevention and more.
The most common symptoms of OA include:
- joint pain
- stiffness in the joint
- loss of flexibility and reduced range of motion
- tenderness or discomfort when pressing on the affected areas with your fingers
- crepitus, or grating, crackling, clicking, or popping sounds when you move your joints
- bone spurs, or extra lumps of bone, which are typically painless
As OA becomes more advanced, the pain associated with it may become more intense. Over time, swelling in the joint and surrounding area may also occur. Learn how to recognize the early symptoms of OA, which can help you to better manage the condition.
OA is caused by joint damage. This damage can have a cumulative effect over time, which is why age is one of the main causes of the joint damage leading to OA. The older you are, the more repetitive stress you’ve had on your joints.
Other causes of joint damage include:
- past injury, such as torn cartilage, dislocated joints, or ligament injuries
- joint malformation
- poor posture
Certain risk factors increase your chances of developing OA. They include:
- having family with the condition, particularly parents or siblings
- gender, with women having higher rates of OA than men
- being at least 50 years old, according to the Arthritis Foundation
- having undergone menopause
- having an occupation that involves kneeling, climbing, heavy lifting, or similar actions
- a history of injury
- being overweight or having obesity
- poor posture
- having another medical condition that affects your joint health, such as diabetes or a different type of arthritis
Having OA in one part of your body also increases your risk of developing OA in other parts of your body. Learn more about possible causes of OA.
OA treatment is centered upon symptom management. The type of treatment that will help you the most will largely depend on the severity of your symptoms and their location.
Often, over-the-counter (OTC) medications, lifestyle changes, and home remedies will be enough to provide you with relief from pain, stiffness, and swelling.
A number of different types of OA medications can help provide relief. They include:
- Oral pain relievers. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and other pain relievers help reduce pain but not swelling.
- Topical pain relievers. These OTC products are available as creams, gels, and patches. They help to numb the joint area and can provide pain relief, especially for mild arthritis pain.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). NSAIDs such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn) help reduce swelling as well as pain.
- Corticosteroids. These prescription medications are available in oral form. They may also be given by injection directly into a joint. Examples include cortisone and triamcinolone acetonide (Kenalog-40, Zilretta).
- Cymbalta. Your doctor may prescribe the antidepressant duloxetine (Cymbalta), which the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also approved for the treatment of musculoskeletal pain.
Your doctor may recommend OTC solutions as a first approach. Learn more about OTC and prescription medications for OA.
Being overweight can put strain on your joints and cause pain. Shedding some pounds helps relieve this pressure and reduces pain. A moderate weight can also lower your risk of other health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease.
Resting your muscles can lower swelling and inflammation. Be kind to yourself and don’t overdo it. Getting enough sleep at night can also help you manage pain more effectively.
Heat and cold therapy
You can experiment with heat or cold therapy to relieve muscle pain and stiffness. Apply a hot or cold compress to sore joints for 15 to 20 minutes, several times per day.
Physical activity strengthens the muscles around your joints and may help relieve stiffness. Aim for at least 20 to 30 minutes of physical movement, at least every other day. Choose gentle, low impact activities, such as walking or swimming. Tai chi and yoga can also improve joint flexibility and help with pain management.
The bottom line on treatment
These practices can help take the edge off of your symptoms and improve your quality of life. Check out this full list of OA treatments.
It’s well known that arthritis, including OA, can cause physical complications. OA can cause emotional complications too.
Physical complications include:
- poor sleep
- weight gain as a result of pain or limited mobility
- osteonecrosis, or bone death
- erosion of the ligaments and tendons
- hairline (stress) fractures
- hemarthrosis, or bleeding near the joints
Emotional complications include anxiety and depression brought on by the loss of function. Discover other complications of OA.
Cartilage is a tough, rubbery, flexible substance that’s softer than bone. Its job is to protect the ends of bones within a joint, allowing them to move easily against each other.
When cartilage breaks down, these bone surfaces become pitted and rough. This can cause pain within the joint and irritation in the surrounding tissues. Damaged cartilage can’t repair itself, because cartilage doesn’t contain any blood vessels.
When cartilage wears away completely, the cushioning buffer that it provides disappears, allowing for bone-on-bone contact. Bone-on-bone contact can cause intense pain and other symptoms associated with OA. Here’s what else you need to know about cartilage, joints, and OA.
OA is a progressive condition with five stages from 0 to 4. The first stage (0) represents a typical joint. Stage 4 represents severe OA. Not everyone who has OA will progress all the way to stage 4. The condition often stabilizes long before reaching this stage.
People with severe OA have extensive or complete loss of cartilage in one or more joints. The bone-on-bone friction associated with this can cause severe symptoms such as:
- Increased swelling and inflammation. The amount of synovial fluid within the joint may increase. Normally, this fluid helps reduce friction during movement. However, in larger amounts, it can cause joint swelling. Fragments of broken-off cartilage may also float within the synovial fluid, increasing pain and swelling.
- Increased pain. You may feel pain during activities and also when you’re at rest. You may feel an increase in your pain level as the day progresses, or more swelling in your joints if you’ve used them a lot throughout the day.
- Decreased range of motion. Due to stiffness or pain in your joints, you may not be able to move as well. This can make it harder to enjoy the day-to-day activities that used to come easily.
- Joint instability. Your joints may become less stable. For instance, if you have severe OA in your knees, you may experience locking (sudden lack of movement) or buckling (when your knee gives out). Buckling can cause falls and injury.
- Other symptoms. As a joint continues to wear down, muscle weakness, bone spurs, and joint deformity may also occur.
The joint damage caused by severe OA isn’t reversible, but treatment can help reduce symptoms. Find out everything you need to know about advanced OA.
OA and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) share the same symptoms but are very different conditions. OA is a degenerative condition, which means that it increases in severity over time. RA, on the other hand, is an autoimmune disorder.
People with RA have immune systems that mistake the soft lining around joints for a threat to the body, causing the body to attack that area. This soft lining, which includes the synovial fluid, is called the synovium. As the immune system launches its assault, fluid buildup within the joint occurs. This causes stiffness, pain, swelling, and inflammation.
If you’re not sure which form of arthritis you have, your best bet is to talk with your doctor. You can also do your own preliminary research. Take a closer look at the differences between RA and OA.
OA is a disease that often develops slowly. It can be hard to diagnose until it starts to cause painful or debilitating symptoms. Early OA is often diagnosed after an accident or other incident that causes a fracture requiring an X-ray.
In addition to X-rays, your doctor may use an MRI to diagnose OA. This imaging test uses radio waves and a magnetic field to create images of bone and soft tissue.
Other diagnostic tests include a blood test to rule out other conditions that cause joint pain, such as RA. A synovial (joint) fluid analysis can also help determine whether gout or infection is the underlying cause of your inflammation.
Gentle stretching exercises can be very helpful if you have OA, especially for stiffness or pain in your knees, hips, or back. Stretching can help improve mobility and range of motion.
As with any exercise plan, check with your doctor before beginning, to make sure it’s the right course of action for you. If stretching exercises get the green light, try these hip exercises.
Alternative treatments and supplements may help to relieve symptoms such as inflammation and joint pain. Some supplements or herbs that may help include:
- fish oil
- green tea
Other alternative treatment options include:
- physical therapy
- massage therapy
Other remedies can range from taking Epsom salt baths to using hot or cold compresses.
Talk with your doctor about any herbs or supplements you’re considering before you use them. This will help ensure that they are safe, effective, and won’t interfere with other medications you’re taking.
Interested in additional natural home remedies for OA? Here are more that are known to work.
There’s no downside to eating a nutritious diet. And if you have OA, diet and nutrition are especially important.
First off, you’ll want to keep your weight in a moderate range to reduce unnecessary pressure on your joints.
A 2020 research review also suggests that some types of OA, such as OA of the knee, respond positively to a diet high in flavonoids. Flavonoids are nutrients found in fruits and vegetables.
The antioxidants found in many fruits and vegetables may also help counteract the free radicals produced by inflammation. Free radicals are molecules that can cause cell damage.
A high quality diet may help provide relief from OA symptoms by lowering inflammation and swelling. Eating foods high in the following can be highly beneficial:
- vitamin C
- vitamin D
- beta carotene
- omega-3 fatty acids
Increasing your intake of foods with anti-inflammatory properties will help, too. Check out more reasons and ways to eat well while living with OA.
OA can affect one or several areas of your hands. These areas often include the:
- distal interphalangeal joint, which is the joint closest to the nail
- proximal interphalangeal joint, which is the middle joint of each finger
- joint connecting the thumb and the wrist
The joints that are affected largely determine the symptoms that occur. These symptoms often include:
- trouble moving your fingers
- reduced range of motion
- crepitus when you move your fingers
- trouble gripping or holding onto objects
Women are more prone to OA in the hand than men and usually develop it at a younger age. Hand OA can have a big impact on your ability to do the tasks associated with day-to-day living. However, treatments ranging from lifestyle changes to surgery can help. Read more about OA of the hands and how to treat it.
OA can occur in one or both hips. In this way, it differs from RA, which usually occurs in both hips at the same time.
Hip OA is a slowly degenerative condition. Many people find that they’re able to manage their symptoms for many years by using medications, exercise, and physical therapy. Supports, such as canes, can also help.
If the condition worsens, steroid injections, other medications, or surgery can help provide relief. Alternative therapies can also help, and new technologies are on the horizon. Here’s what you need to know about the many treatment options for hip OA.
Like hip OA, knee OA can occur in one or both knees. Age, genetics, and knee injury may all play a role in knee OA.
Athletes who concentrate solely on one sport that involves extensive, repetitive motion, such as running or tennis, may be at increased risk of OA. Likewise, if you pursue only one type of physical activity, this may overuse some muscles and underuse others.
Overuse causes weakness and instability in the knee joint. Varying your activities helps to work different muscle groups, allowing all the muscles around your knee to be strengthened.
Treatment for knee OA depends on the stage of the condition. Learn about the stages of knee OA and how each one is treated.
Wearing a brace around your knee can be an excellent nonsurgical treatment for knee OA. Braces can lower swelling and pressure. They can also increase stability in your knee by shifting your weight away from the damaged part of your knee. This allows for greater mobility.
There are several types of knee braces. Some may be custom fitted for you, and others are available OTC. Your doctor may recommend that you try different kinds of braces for different activities. Find out what’s the best type of brace for your OA.
Cervical OA is also referred to as cervical spondylosis or neck OA. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, it’s an age-related condition that affects more than 85 percent of people over 60 years old.
The cervical spine is located in the neck and contains facet joints. These joints help to maintain flexibility in the spine, allowing for a full range of motion. When the cartilage around the facet joints starts to wear away, cervical OA results.
Cervical OA doesn’t always cause symptoms. If it does, symptoms can range from mild to severe and include:
- pain in your shoulder blade, down your arm, or in your fingers
- muscle weakness
- stiffness in your neck
- headache, mostly in the back of your head
- tingling or numbness down your arms or legs
Occasionally, more serious symptoms can occur, such as the loss of bladder control, bowel control, or balance. If you have these symptoms, get immediate medical help. Check out the risk factors and treatment options for cervical OA.
If you have back pain, it may indicate that you have spinal OA. This condition affects the facet joints located throughout the spine.
Age and trauma to the spine are both potential risk factors for spinal OA. A person who is overweight, or whose job requires squatting and sitting, may also be at increased risk.
Spinal OA’s symptoms can vary in severity. They include:
- stiffness or tenderness in the joints in your back
- weakness, numbness, or tingling in your arms or legs
- reduced range of motion
It’s important to pay attention to these symptoms. Without treatment, spinal OA can worsen, causing more severe symptoms and disability. Get the facts on OA of the spine.
You may have risk factors for OA that you can’t change, such as heredity and age. However, other risk factors can be controlled. Managing them can help reduce your risk of OA.
The following tips can help you manage the risk factors under your control:
- Support your body. If you’re an athlete or an avid exerciser, make sure you care for your body. Wear athletic supports and shoes that reduce impact on your knees. Also make sure to vary your sports, so that all of your muscles get a workout, not just the same muscles every time.
- Maintain a moderate weight. Keep your body mass index in the appropriate range for your height and sex.
- Eat a nutritious diet. Reach for a range of healthy foods, with a focus on fruits and vegetables.
- Get enough rest. Give your body ample opportunities to rest and sleep.
If you have diabetes, keeping track of your blood sugar can also help you manage your risk of OA. Discover more OA prevention tips.
OA is a chronic condition that doesn’t have a cure. But with treatment, the outlook is positive.
Don’t ignore symptoms of chronic joint pain and stiffness. The sooner you speak with a doctor, the sooner you can receive a diagnosis, begin treatment, and improve your quality of life.