What is Osteoarthritis?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis.

It is a type of degenerative joint disease resulting from the breakdown of the joint cartilage and underlying bone.

While it can damage any joint, osteoarthritis will most likely affect joints in the hands, spine, knees, and hips. Click here to read more about osteoarthritis and its treatments.

Symptoms of Osteoarthritis

The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) reports that osteoarthritis is the most common joint disorder in the United States, affecting more than 32.5 million US adults. About 70% of people over the age of 65 have evidence of osteoarthritis, as seen in X-rays, but not all experience symptoms.

Osteoarthritis symptoms generally develop slowly and worsen over time. Osteoarthritis symptoms include:

  • Pain – the affected joints can hurt when moving
  • Stiffness – frequently noticeable after being inactive or upon awakening
  • Tenderness – you may experience tenderness when applying soft pressure to the affected joints or near them
  • Swelling – may be caused due to mild tissue inflammation around the affected joints
  • Bone spurs – extra bits of bone may form around the affected joint
  • Loss of flexibility – not being able to move the joint through its full range of motion

Depending on the severity of osteoarthritis, the symptoms can be mild for some people without really noticing them.

However, others suffering from osteoarthritis can experience more severe symptoms, making it difficult to perform everyday activities.

If you face persistent symptoms, it is recommended you seek medical help so the doctors can confirm your diagnosis and prescribe the necessary treatment.

The Most Common Causes of Osteoarthritis

The breakdown of cartilage is the main cause of osteoarthritis. The cartilage is a slippery yet firm tissue enabling nearly frictionless joint motion.

If it wears down completely, the bone will rub on it. It usually affects the fingers, thumbs, big toes, knees, hips, and spine.

Common in older people, osteoarthritis can occur due to repetitive use leading to swelling and then pain. In the most severe cases, patients can lose all the cartilage between the bones of a joint.

Secondary osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage is damaged due to other diseases or medical conditions, such as:

  • Obesity – putting too much stress on the joints (especially knees)
  • Injury or surgery to the joint
  • Congenital abnormalities
  • Body mechanics – an unusual way of walking or hypermobility
  • Hobby or job – using a joint in repetitive movements (lifting, squatting)
  • Gout – crystal deposits in the cartilage can lead to damage and osteoarthritis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory conditions – followed by joint damage and cartilage breakdown
  • Diabetes or other hormone disorders – may cause inflammation leading to osteoarthritis
  • Menopause – levels of estrogen may fall after menopause, lowering the level of protection of the cartilage and bones
  • Genetics – some may inherit a tendency to develop osteoarthritis
  • Bone deformities – some can be born with malformed joints or a breakdown of cartilage
  • Gender – it is unclear why, but women are more likely to develop osteoarthritis

How Can a Doctor Diagnose Osteoarthritis?

Your orthopedist will begin with a physical exam, determining whether your affected joints show any signs of swelling, tenderness, flexibility, or redness. The doctor will then conduct imaging tests or lab tests.

Imaging Tests

Your orthopedist will most likely recommend X-rays or MRI to see pictures of the affected joints. The cartilage cannot be seen on X-ray images, but cartilage loss shows up on the X-ray as a narrowing of the space between the bones. Also, an X-ray can see bone spurs around a joint.

By using radio waves and a strong magnetic field to create detailed images of soft tissues, bone, and cartilage, an MRI may help provide information about osteoarthritis in the most severe cases.

Lab Tests

A doctor can confirm a diagnosis of osteoarthritis by analyzing blood or joint fluid. While there are no blood tests for osteoarthritis, some tests may help rule out other causes of pain, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

On the other hand, if your doctor needs a joint fluid analysis, they may use a needle to draw fluid from the affected joint. It then gets tested for inflammation, helping determine if the pain is caused by an infection or gout rather than osteoarthritis.

How is Osteoarthritis Treated?

Unfortunately, osteoarthritis cannot be reversed or cured, but some medications or treatments may reduce the pain or increase mobility.


The medicines used to relieve osteoarthritis symptoms include:

  • Acetaminophen – helps relieve the pain of those suffering from osteoarthritis
  • with mild to moderate pain
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) – ibuprofen (Motrin IB, Advil), or naproxen sodium (Aleve) can relieve pain.
  • Duloxetine (Cymbalta) is used as an antidepressant; it is approved to treat chronic pain, such as osteoarthritis pain.

In addition to these medications, you may need to undergo therapy, such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, or transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS).

Surgical or Other Procedures

If these treatments do not help you, a doctor may want to consider procedures such as:

  • Cortisone injections are used to relieve pain for a few weeks, but the number of injections you can receive is limited to three or four a year.
  • Lubrication injections
  • Realigning bones – an osteotomy may be helpful if one of your knees was damaged more than the other.
  • Joint replacement – a surgeon will remove the damaged joint surfaces and replace them with metal or plastic parts.

Other Remedies

If you suffer from osteoarthritis and want to lessen your joint pain and stiffness, your lifestyle can significantly affect your symptoms. You can exercise, try to lose weight if necessary, or use movement therapies (yoga, tai chi) to reduce pain and improve movement.

Additionally, consider using heat and cold therapies, which help muscles relax and ease the pain, capsaicin (a chili pepper extract), braces or shoe inserts (supports your joints to take pressure off), or assistive devices (cane or walker).

Some complementary and alternative medicine treatments such as acupuncture, avocado-soybean unsaponifiable, omega-3 fatty acids, or glucosamine and chondroitin might help some people.

Regardless of the remedies, you may find useful, you should seek the medical help of an orthopedist to understand better what you are dealing with.

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