The terms "osteoarthritis" (OA) and "arthritis" are sometimes used interchangeably, but they do not mean the same things. Arthritis refers to over 100 joint conditions that cause inflammation (swelling) of one or more joints, while osteoarthritis is a type of arthritis. Arthritis will affect tissues around the joints and other connective tissues throughout the body.
Osteoarthritis is sometimes called degenerative arthritis, or wear-and-tear arthritis, because it occurs with use over time, as people age. It causes the breakdown of cartilage—the firm, whitish, flexible connective tissue that covers the ends of bones where they meet to form a joint.
OA affects 32.5 million adults in the United States. It is the most common form of arthritis, followed by rheumatoid arthritis (RA)—a type of inflammatory arthritis that can cause severe joint damage and affect the organs and connective tissues throughout the body, as well. OA is a leading cause of disability worldwide.
This article will cover osteoarthritis symptoms, causes, treatment, and more.
The main symptoms of OA are pain and stiffness in affected joints. Pain will be worse after an activity or after a long day. Joints can become stiff after rest or inactivity, but stiffness improves with movement. Symptoms of OA will vary depending on the activities you are doing.
OA can affect any joint. The most commonly affected joints are:
- Knees: Knee OA is common and makes walking, climbing steps, or getting in and out of bed harder. OA in the knees is often linked to disability.
- Hips: OA hip pain will be felt in the hip and sometimes in the groin, inner thigh, buttocks, and knees. Hip OA can affect mobility and make daily activities harder, including caring for yourself.
- Spine: People with OA in their spine will experience pain and stiffness in the neck and lower back. Arthritis changes in the spine can put pressure on the nerves at the ends of the spinal column, leading to weakness, numbness, and tingling of the arms and legs. If spinal arthritis becomes severe, it can affect bladder and bowel function.
Other commonly affected joints from OA are the shoulders, hands, fingers, and feet.
Additional symptoms of OA include:
- Reduced range of motion and loss of flexibility
- Tenderness and discomfort
- Crepitus (grating, clicking, or popping sounds when you move an affected joint)
- Bone spurs (extra bone that forms at the ends of joints and can appear as visible lumps on the skin)
As OA advances, pain can become more intense. You might also experience severe swelling in the tissues surrounding the affected joints.
Complications of Osteoarthritis
Left untreated, OA can lead to physical and emotional complications. Complications might include:
- Osteonecrosis (bone death)
- Ligament and tendon damage
- Stress fractures (cracks in a bone due to overuse or repeated trauma)
- Hemarthrosis (blood near the joints)
- Anxiety and depression
- Joint damage
- Mobility troubles
- Work disability
Talk to a healthcare provider if you think you might be experiencing a complication of OA or if you have concerns about the severity of OA symptoms.
What Complications Are Associated With Osteoarthritis?
OA is either primary or secondary. Primary OA is caused by the wear and tear of joints over time, whereas secondary OA occurs when another medical condition damages cartilage tissue. Conditions leading to secondary OA include inflammatory arthritis, diabetes and other hormone disorders, and low estrogen levels after menopause.
Primary OA is more common in older adults. Putting stress on the joints damages cartilage, leading to pain and swelling. Severe cartilage damage causes bones to rub against other bones in the joints, leading to more pain. Cartilage damage can also trigger the growth of bone spurs around the joints.
Osteoarthritis can run in families. In some cases, you can inherit an increased risk for the condition. According to a 2015 review, 40% to 70% of OA causes have a genetic component. This report shows heredity might account for 40% of knee OA cases, 60% of hip OA, 65% of hand OA, and around 70% of spine OA cases.
Genetic mutations (changes) associated with OA are seen in genes responsible for bone and cartilage formation. When there is a genetic component, it is possible to experience OA at a young age and for OA to progress rapidly.
Is Osteoarthritis Genetic?
Additional risk factors for OA include:
- Being female: Women have higher rates of OA, especially after age 50.
- Having undergone menopause: This is the time when periods have stopped for 12 months straight.
- Type of career: Having a job that requires frequent movements, such as climbing, lifting, kneeling, and repetitive motions, is hard on joints.
- History of joint injury
- Poor posture
- Being overweight: Extra weight stresses joints, especially the weight-bearing joints of the hips and knees.
Treatment goals for OA are to alleviate pain and improve function. There is no cure for OA, but treatment can reduce the potential for joint damage and the need for surgical intervention.
Your treatment options for OA will depend on how severe your symptoms are and what joints are affected. For most people, over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, home remedies, and lifestyle changes are enough to provide pain and symptom relief. Others will require more potent medicines or surgery to treat the effects of OA.
Different medications can provide relief from OA pain and other symptoms. They include:
- OTC pain relievers: Tylenol (acetaminophen) can offer pain relief, while anti-inflammatory drugs like Advil (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen) can help reduce pain and swelling. A healthcare provider can prescribe stronger versions of these OTC options or other pain medications to manage pain and swelling if necessary.
- Topical pain relievers: OTC creams, gels, and patches are rubbed on the skin at the affected joints. These products can numb the joint area and provide pain relief.
- Corticosteroids: A corticosteroid can be given as an injection directly in an affected joint.
- Cymbalta (duloxetine): Research on the antidepressant Cymbalta for managing OA has found it can offer pain relief, improved function, and an enhanced quality of life. Cymbalta has also been found to cause adverse gastrointestinal effects, and researchers recommend using it cautiously.
Home remedies, including hot and cold therapy and assistive devices, can help you manage OA pain, swelling, and stiffness and protect your joints.
Hot and Cold Therapy
Hot and cold treatments can offer temporary relief. Heat therapy stimulates blood circulation and alters pain sensations. Cold can reduce swelling by constricting blood vessels and numbing pain.
Options for heat therapy include heating pads, heated washcloths or towels, or warm baths and showers. Cold therapy options include ice packs, a bag of frozen vegetables, or a frozen water bottle.
When to Use Heat or Ice for Knee Pain
Different types of assistive devices can reduce stress on joints affected by OA. A brace or orthotic device can support or stabilize a painful joint. Shoe inserts, a cane, or a walker can help reduce pain and take pressure off joints when walking.
Assistive devices to make home life easier include:
- Devices to help with getting dressed, including zipper pulls and shoehorns
- Kitchen tools, such as electric can openers and slicers, jar openers, and reaching tools
- Bathroom assist tools, including tub bars and handrails, faucet levers, and a raised toilet seat
A physical or occupational therapist can help you decide which tools might help you best manage OA pain and keep pressure off affected joints.
Some lifestyle changes can help you manage the effects of OA and prevent damage to joints.These include:
- Weight loss: If you are overweight, losing weight can reduce stress on the affected joints. It can also alleviate pain in weight-bearing joints.
- Exercise: Exercise can help to improve flexibility, muscle strength, and joint stability. Swimming, water aerobics, walking, and low-impact strength training are safe activities for people with OA.Studies have shown exercise can improve OA pain and decrease the potential for disability. Work with a physical or occupational therapist to tailor an exercise plan that best suits your unique health situation.
- Get adequate sleep: Resting muscles and joints can help to lower swelling. Getting enough sleep can also help you to manage pain better.
Your healthcare provider might recommend surgery if OA pain is unmanageable and interferes with your normal, daily activities. This recommendation is often made to people whose OAis severe.
Different surgical options are available, including minimally invasive ones and joint replacement surgery. While surgical intervention can come with risks, joint surgery can be an effective option for restoring joint function and reducing pain.
What You Need to Know About Joint Replacement Surgery
It is not possible to completely prevent OA. However, minimizing your risk for the condition is possible by avoiding injury and living a healthy lifestyle.
A healthy lifestyle that can reduce OA risk includes:
- Keeping a healthy body weight: If you are overweight, talk to a healthcare provider about the best ways to get the weight off.
- Controlling blood sugar: High blood sugar can increase the risk for OA. If you have diabetes, you should have your blood sugar checked regularly. A healthcare provider can offer advice on keeping blood sugar levels down.
- Be active daily: Try to get at least 30 minutes of exercise daily.
- Protect joints from injury: Be careful with daily activities and avoid ones that stress OA-affected joints even more. Consider safer ways to lift or carry, and aim to practice good posture.
- Be mindful of pain: If you experience pain that lasts at least an hour after activity, you should rest the affected joints. Use an ice pack to manage pain. Let a healthcare provider know if you frequently experience pain after exercise or other activities. They can help you to determine the source of pain and how to manage it best.
Other Types of Arthritis
Osteoarthritis is the most common arthritis type, but it is not the only type. Other common types of arthritis are RA, psoriatic arthritis (PsA), and gout:
- Rheumatoid arthritis: RA is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system malfunctions and attacks healthy body tissues—mainly the synovial linings of joints. RA can also affect the organs, including the skin, heart, lungs, and kidneys. The cause of RA and other autoimmune diseases is unknown, but these conditions tend to run in families and are linked to specific gene mutations.
- Psoriatic arthritis: PsA is also an autoimmune disease. With PsA, the immune system attacks the skin, joints, and entheses—areas where tendons and ligaments meet bones. PsA often occurs in people with the autoimmune skin condition psoriasis, but it is possible to have PsA and never have psoriasis.
- Gout: Gout is a type of inflammatory arthritis resulting from the buildup of uric acid crystals in a joint. The toe or other foot areas are often affected, but gout can occur in other joints, including the ankles, elbows, and fingers.
Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis. It is a condition of wear and tear that occurs with age, joint injuries, or stress on the joints from weight or overactivity. The joints that bear the most weight (the knees, hips, and spine) are frequently affected by OA.
OA causes the loss of cartilage, the slippery material at the ends of bones. The damaged cartilage makes movement painful and can lead to bone spurs and bone-on-bone pain. The symptoms you experience will depend on which joints are affected and might include deep, aching pain, morning stiffness, joint stiffness with rest, and pain with walking.
Treatment for OA focuses on symptom management and maintaining joint function. Treatment options include medications, home remedies, lifestyle changes, and surgery as a last resort. OA generally cannot be prevented, but it is possible to reduce risk by protecting joints and living a healthy lifestyle.
A Word From Verywell
Osteoarthritis gradually develops over many years or decades. For most people, having mild or infrequent joint pain does not warrant the need for treatment.
Some types of arthritis, however, require prompt medical attention. For example, inflammatory arthritis conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis can cause permanent damage. Quick treatment can help preserve your joint function and prevent serious health problems.
You should reach out to a healthcare provider if you experience pain or swelling in multiple joints that lasts more than three days or if you have several episodes of joint pain that last days at a time.
If you experience fever or severe fatigue with joint pain, let a healthcare provider know immediately. They can examine you and determine the source of joint pain before any serious problems arise.
Frequently Asked Questions
What causes osteoarthritis to flare up?
The most common triggers of OA pain are overdoing activities or joint trauma. Other triggers might include cold weather, severe weather changes (barometric pressure changes), repetitive joint motions, and stress.
Learn More:What Causes Arthritis Flare-Ups and How to Treat Them
Which type of arthritis is the worst?
Rheumatoid arthritis is one of the most painful types of arthritis. It causes painful swelling in the joints, especially the small joints of the hands and feet. It can affect other tissues in the body, including the organs.
Learn More:Rheumatoid Arthritis Pain Medications
Can you stop osteoarthritis from progressing?
It is possible to keep osteoarthritis from progressing. You can do this by maintaining a healthy weight, controlling blood sugar, exercising, and protecting your joints.
Learn More:Can Osteoarthritis Be Reversed?