Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, affecting millions of people worldwide. It occurs when the protective cartilage on the ends of your bones wears down over time.
Although osteoarthritis can damage any joint in your body, the disorder most commonly affects joints in your hands, knees, hips and spine.
Osteoarthritis symptoms can usually be effectively managed, although the underlying process cannot be reversed. Staying active, maintaining a healthy weight and other treatments may slow progression of the disease and help improve pain and joint function.
Osteoarthritis symptoms often develop slowly and worsen over time. Signs and symptoms of osteoarthritis include:
If you have joint pain or stiffness that doesn't go away, make an appointment with your doctor.
Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage that cushions the ends of bones in your joints gradually deteriorates. Cartilage is a firm, slippery tissue that permits nearly frictionless joint motion.
In osteoarthritis, the slick surface of the cartilage becomes rough. Eventually, if the cartilage wears down completely, you may be left with bone rubbing on bone.
During the physical exam, your doctor will closely examine your affected joint, checking for tenderness, swelling or redness, and for range of motion in the joint. Your doctor may also recommend imaging and lab tests.
Pictures of the affected joint can be obtained during imaging tests. Examples include:
Analyzing your blood or joint fluid can help confirm the diagnosis.
Osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease that worsens over time. Joint pain and stiffness may become severe enough to make daily tasks difficult.
Some people are no longer able to work. When joint pain is this severe, doctors may suggest joint replacement surgery.
Various complementary and alternative medicine may help with osteoarthritis symptoms. Treatments that have shown promise for osteoarthritis include:
Glucosamine and chondroitin. Studies have been mixed on these nutritional supplements. A few have found benefits for people with osteoarthritis, while most indicate that these supplements work no better than a placebo.
Don't use glucosamine if you're allergic to shellfish. Glucosamine and chondroitin may interact with blood thinners such as warfarin and cause bleeding problems.
Lifestyle changes can make a significant difference in osteoarthritis symptoms. Other home treatments also might help. Some things to try include:
Exercise. Exercise can increase your endurance and strengthen the muscles around your joint, making your joint more stable. Try walking, biking or swimming. If you feel new joint pain, stop.
New pain that lasts for hours after you exercise probably means you've overdone it but doesn't mean you have done any significant damage or that you should stop exercising. Simply resume a day or two later at a slightly lower level of intensity.
Lose weight. Obesity or even being somewhat overweight increases the stress on your weight-bearing joints, such as your knees and your hips. Even a small amount of weight loss can relieve some pressure and reduce your pain.
Talk to a dietitian about healthy ways to lose weight. Most people combine changes in their diets with increased exercise.
Apply over-the-counter pain creams. Creams and gels available at drugstores may provide temporary relief from osteoarthritis pain. Some creams numb the pain by creating a hot or cool sensation.
Other creams contain medications, such as aspirin-like compounds, that are absorbed into your skin. Pain creams work best on joints that are close to the surface of your skin, such as your knees and fingers.
Use assistive devices. Assistive devices can make it easier to go about your day without stressing your painful joint. A cane may take weight off your knee or hip as you walk. Carry the cane in the hand opposite the leg that hurts.
Gripping and grabbing tools may make it easier to work in the kitchen if you have osteoarthritis in your fingers. Your doctor or occupational therapist may have ideas about what sorts of assistive devices may be helpful to you. Catalogs and medical supply stores also may be places to look for ideas.
Lifestyle changes and certain treatments are key to managing pain and disability, but another major component to treatment is your own outlook on life. Your ability to cope despite pain and disability caused by osteoarthritis often determines how much of an impact osteoarthritis will have on your everyday life. Talk to your doctor if you're feeling frustrated, because he or she may have ideas about how to cope or refer you to someone who can help.
Factors that may increase your risk of osteoarthritis include: