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Osteoarthritis Diagnosis

Diagnosing Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is a joint disease that affects the protective tissue covering the ends of your bones (cartilage). With this condition, the cartilage breaks down or wears away. This creates friction between bones under cartilage and causes pain and swelling in the affected joints.

Osteoarthritis affects approximately 27 million people in the United States, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS). The disease can develop in older people and younger people, but it's most common in people over 65. Risk factors for osteoarthritis include:

  • age
  • weight
  • genetics
  • sports injury
  • joint overuse

There’s no cure, but treating the condition can reduce symptoms and help you maintain an active lifestyle. After diagnosis, your doctor can recommend a treatment plan based on the severity of your symptoms.

No single test can diagnose osteoarthritis. Your doctor will complete several tests to determine whether you have this condition or a similar condition.

Physical Examination

Because osteoarthritis symptoms can be similar to other arthritic and inflammatory diseases, your doctor will need to know details about your condition. You’ll also need to answer questions about your medical history and family history, and provide a list of all current medications.

Doctors usually complete a physical examination to check your muscle strength and reflexes. They may also check your joints for swelling or tenderness. You may be asked to complete simple activities during your appointment like walking across the room or bending over. This helps your doctor assess joint mobility.

Imaging Tests

Sometimes, a physical examination alone doesn’t provide answers. Your doctor may recommend an imaging test to capture a picture of the affected joints and pinpoint the cause of symptoms.


X-rays cannot create an image of cartilage, but they can show cartilage loss and bone damage. This test helps your doctor diagnose arthritis and determine the type of arthritis.

An X-ray machine uses an electromagnetic wave of high-energy and shortwave lengths to create an internal digital image of the body. An X-ray of affected joints takes about 10 to 15 minutes. No special preparation is needed for this imaging test. But you may need to remove jewelry and clothes, and you should tell the technician if you’re pregnant.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

If you’re experiencing pain and an X-ray image doesn’t show cartilage loss, your doctor may recommend an MRI. This test creates a computerized image of soft tissue and bones using radio waves and a strong magnetic field. Your doctor can evaluate joint damage in different parts of your body, such as the hips and knees. This helps determine if osteoarthritis causes swelling and inflammation.

It takes between 30 minutes and two hours to complete an MRI scan, depending on the number of images taken by the technician. No special preparation is necessary for an MRI. You may need to remove your clothes and wear a hospital gown during the scan.

The scan takes place inside a tube-like machine.  Tell your doctor if you have a fear of enclosed spaces (claustrophobia). You may be able to complete testing at a facility that has an open MRI.

Laboratory Tests

Since other diseases have symptoms similar to osteoarthritis your doctor may order blood tests to rule out other causes. For example, a higher level of rheumatoid factor antibiotics in your blood can be a sign of rheumatoid arthritis. Blood tests can also diagnose other rheumatoid illnesses, such as lupus and gout.

Blood tests are sometimes inconclusive. If your blood test doesn’t provide a clear diagnosis, your doctor may suggest a joint fluid analysis to check for osteoarthritis. With this test, your doctor inserts a needle into an affected joint and draws fluid from this joint. Doctors can then determine whether osteoarthritis, gout, or an infection causes pain. Your doctor will prescribe antibiotics if you have an infection.


Osteoarthritis can progress and worsen over time. As your condition deteriorates, simple activities like walking or bending can become extremely painful or difficult. Medication, rest, and lifestyle changes can help you live a relatively active and pain-free life. 

Content licensed from:

Written by: Valencia Higuera
Medically reviewed on: Sep 03, 2014: Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, MBA

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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