Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common type of arthritis. It’s also known as:
- degenerative joint disease
- degenerative arthritis
- wear-and-tear arthritis
It’s estimated that OA affects more than 27 million men and women over the age of 25 in the United States. It’s a leading cause of disability in adult Americans.
Risk factors for OA include:
- a job that puts stress on your joints
- joint injury
- joint malformation
OA is caused by a breakdown in the cartilage that covers your joints. The protective tissue is damaged by age and repeated motion. This increases friction as the bones of your joints rub against each other. It can also cause damage to the bones.
The most common symptoms of OA are pain and stiffness. OA can occur in any joint. However, the most commonly affected joints are in the:
OA is different from rheumatoid arthritis (RA). RA is an autoimmune disorder. With RA, your body’s immune system attacks joint tissue. This leads to swelling and pain.
Cartilage is a tough but rubbery substance covering the end of bones. It protects joints and allows bones to move easily against each other. OA occurs when your cartilage begins to degrade. The degeneration exposes the bones of the joint. Bone-on-bone contact can cause extreme pain. The loss of cartilage may also affect the shape of a joint. This may keep it from functioning smoothly.
OA varies in severity. Some people may have evidence of OA during testing without any symptoms. Other people may develop severe pain and stiffness.
Many people with OA have some change in their mobility. Some eventually can’t perform certain activities related to daily life. These include problems with the following:
- getting in and out of chairs
- putting on shoes
In rare cases, damage from spinal OA can affect the function of your bowels and bladder. Spinal OA can also cause tingling or weakness in your arms and legs.
OA is a slow-developing disease. It’s a silent disorder that can be difficult to diagnose until it begins to cause painful or debilitating symptoms. Early OA is usually only diagnosed after an accident or other incident that results in a fracture requiring an X-ray.
Over time, OA can cause:
- limited range of motion
In addition to X-rays, your doctor may use an MRI scan to diagnose OA. This imaging test uses radio waves and a magnetic field to create images of your bone and soft tissues. Other diagnostic tests include a blood test to rule out other conditions that cause joint pain like RA. A joint fluid analysis can also be ordered to determine whether gout or an infection is the underlying cause of inflammation.
OA can’t be cured, but you can manage symptoms with a combination of lifestyle changes, home remedies, and medication. You’ll work with your doctor to determine the best course of action. Depending on the severity of the disease, the following treatments may relieve pain and stiffness:
Exercise: Physical activity strengthens the muscles around your joints. Aim for at least 20 to 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week. Choose exercises that don’t irritate your joints such as walking, swimming, and gentle stretches. Tai chi and yoga can improve joint flexibility and reduce pain.
Lose weight: Being overweight can put too much strain on your joints and cause pain. Shedding excess pounds helps relieve this pressure and reduces pain. In addition, a healthy weight can lower your risk for other health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease.
Heat and cold therapy: Experiment with heat and cold therapy to relieve muscle pain and stiffness. Apply a cold or hot compress to sore joints for 15 to 20 minutes several times a day.
Pain relief: Use anti-inflammatory or numbing creams applied directly to sore joints, or take over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil), acetaminophen (Tylenol), and naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn). If symptoms don’t improve with over-the-counter pain relievers, talk to your doctor. Your doctor may prescribe a corticosteroid to reduce pain. You may also be a candidate for a cortisone injection in the affected joint.
Therapeutic devices: Some devices can alleviate or ease pain from walking or standing. Wrap a brace around your ankle, knee, and other joints. Use a walking cane if joint pain or stiffness slows mobility.
Alternative medicine: Alternative medicine and supplements may also relieve joint pain from OA. Options include acupuncture, massage therapy, and supplements such as fish oil and glucosamine (Optiflex-G). Talk to your doctor before combining supplements with prescription medication.
Sometimes, doctors recommend nonsurgical treatments to reduce joint pain and stiffness. Physical therapy can improve range of motion and strengthen the muscles around your joints. Because OA can also affect the joints in your hands, knees, and fingers, it can result in different limitations. Working with an occupational therapist can help you cope with these limitations and learn new ways to perform everyday tasks.
Your doctor may recommend surgical procedures if your condition doesn’t improve with home treatment and therapy. These include realignment bone surgery and joint replacement surgery. Realignment surgery — which is common with OA of the knee — redistributes your weight and alleviates knee pressure. Joint replacement surgery replaces damaged joints with an artificial joint.
OA is a chronic condition that doesn’t have a cure, but the outlook is positive with treatment and therapy. Don’t ignore symptoms of chronic joint pain and stiffness. The sooner you speak with your doctor, the sooner you can receive a diagnosis, begin treatment, and improve the quality of your life.
Written by: David Heitz and Valencia Higuera
Medically reviewed on Feb 10, 2017 by William Morrison, MD