Osteoarthritis is a condition that affects your joints and is the most common form of arthritis in the UK affecting over 8 million people. In joints of a person with osteoarthritis, the tissue covering the bones (also known as cartilage) becomes damaged and worn, which causes pain, stiffness and limited movement in affected areas. Occasionally, joints can swell up and become inflamed. The severity of symptoms varies greatly, with pain and symptoms often flaring up and settling back down again.
Osteoarthritis can occur in young people as well as older people. The hips, knees, hands and the lower part of the spine are most commonly affected. Shoulders, elbows, wrists and the feet can also be affected, but this is less common. Osteoarthritis may occur in more than one joint at any given time.
Many people consider osteoarthritis a normal part of ageing, and that this type of arthritis always gets worse and cannot be treated. However, osteoarthritis does not always get worse as you get older and there are treatments available and changes to your lifestyle that you can make to help ease the pain and symptoms.
Symptoms of osteoarthritis
The symptoms of osteoarthritis vary greatly from person to person, and between different affected joints.
For example, a joint may be severely damaged without causing symptoms, or symptoms may be severe without affecting the movement of a joint.
Three key characteristics of osteoarthritis are:
- mild inflammation of the tissues in and around the joints
- damage to cartilage, the strong, smooth surface that lines the bones and allows joints to move easily and without friction
- bony growths that develop around the edge of the joints
This can lead to pain, stiffness and difficulty doing certain activities.
Osteoarthritis mostly occurs in the knees, hips, spine and small joints of the hands and base of the big toe. However, almost any joint can be affected.
Who develops osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis usually develops in people over 50 years of age and is more common in women than in men. It is commonly thought that osteoarthritis is an inevitable part of getting older, but this is not quite true. While in very old people the changes of osteoarthritis are visible on X-rays, they don’t always have related pain or problems with joint function.
Younger people can also be affected by osteoarthritis, often as a result of an injury or another joint condition.
What are the causes of osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis occurs when there is damage in and around the joints which the body cannot repair. The exact causes are not known but there are several factors thought to increase your risk of developing the condition.
As part of normal life, your joints are exposed to a constant low level of damage. In most cases, your body will repair the damage itself. Usually, the repair process will pass unnoticed and you will not experience any symptoms.
The types of damage that can lead to osteoarthritis includes:
- ligament or tendon problems
- inflammation in the joint itself or within the bone
- damage to the protective surface that allows your joints to move smoothly (cartilage)
It is not known why the breakdown in the repair process that leads to osteoarthritis occurs. However, several factors are thought to contribute to the development of osteoarthritis. These include:
- Joint injury
- Other conditions (secondary arthritis)
- Family history
- Being obese
Read more information about the cause of arthritis go to:
See your GP if you think you have osteoarthritis. There is no definitive test to diagnose the condition, so your doctor will ask about your symptoms and examine your joints and muscles.
Your GP may suspect osteoarthritis if you:
- are over 50 years of age
- have persistent joint pain, which gets worse the more you use your joints
- have no stiffness in your joints in the morning, or stiffness that lasts no longer than half an hour
If your symptoms are slightly different from those listed above, your GP may think you have another form of arthritis.
Further tests, such as X-rays or blood tests may be used to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms, such as rheumatoid arthritis or a fractured bone.However, they are not always required to confirm a diagnosis of osteoarthritis.
More more information on diagnosing osteoarthritis go to:
There is no cure for osteoarthritis, but the symptoms can be eased with several different treatments. Mild symptoms can often be managed with exercise or by wearing suitable footwear. However, in more advanced cases of osteoarthritis, other treatments may be necessary.
Treatment options may include:
- non-drug treatments, such as physiotherapy and weight loss
- medications, such as painkillers
- surgery in a small number of cases, such as a knee or hip replacement
To see more about non-drug treatments please see our pages on ‘Physiotherapy’ ‘Keeping Active’ ‘Eat for Health’
To see more about medications please see our ‘Medication for OA’ page
To see more about surgery please see our ‘Surgery’ page
It is not possible to prevent osteoarthritis altogether. However, you may be able to minimise your risk of developing it by avoiding injury and staying as healthy as possible.
Look after your joints
Do some regular exercise, but try not to put too much stress on your joints, particularly your hips, knees and the joints in your hands.
Avoid exercise that puts strain on your joints and forces them to bear an excessive load, such as running and weight training. Instead, do exercises such as swimming and cycling, where your joints are better supported and the load is more controlled.
Try to maintain good posture at all times, and avoid staying in the same position for too long. If you work at a desk, make sure your chair is at the correct height, and take regular breaks to move around.
Keep your muscles strong
Your muscles help support your joints, so having strong muscles will help your joints stay strong too.
Try to exercise for at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (i.e. cycling or fast walking) every week to build up your muscle strength.
Exercise should be fun, so do what you enjoy, but try not to overload the joints.
Lose weight if you are overweight or obese.