Osteoarthritis is a condition that causes joints to become painful and stiff. It's the most common type of arthritis in the UK.

This topic covers:

Symptoms

Causes

Diagnosis

Treatment

Living with osteoarthritis

Prevention

Symptoms of osteoarthritis

The main symptoms of osteoarthritis are joint pain and stiffness. Some people also experience swelling, tenderness and a grating or crackling sound when moving the affected joints.

The severity of osteoarthritis symptoms can vary greatly from person to person, and between different affected joints.

For some people, the symptoms can be mild and may come and go. Other people can experience more continuous and severe problems which make it difficult to carry out everyday activities.

Almost any joint can be affected by osteoarthritis, but the condition most often causes problems in the knees, hips and small joints of the hands.

You should see your GP if you have persistent symptoms of osteoarthritis so they can confirm the diagnosis and prescribe any necessary treatment.

Read more about the symptoms of osteoarthritis.

Causes of osteoarthritis

As part of normal life, your joints are exposed to a constant low level of damage. In most cases, your body repairs the damage itself and you don't experience any symptoms.

But in osteoarthritis, the protective cartilage on the ends of your bones breaks down, causing pain, swelling and problems moving the joint. Bony growths can develop, and the area can become inflamed (red and swollen).

The exact cause isn't known, but several things are thought to increase your risk of developing osteoarthritis, including:

  • joint injury – overusing your joint when it hasn't had enough time to heal after an injury or operation
  • other conditions (secondary arthritis) – osteoarthritis can occur in joints severely damaged by a previous or existing condition, such as rheumatoid arthritis or gout
  • age – your risk of developing the condition increases as you get older
  • family history – osteoarthritis may run in families, although studies haven't identified a single gene responsible
  • obesity – being obese puts excess strain on your joints, particularly those that bear most of your weight, such as your knees and hips

Diagnosing osteoarthritis

To help determine whether you have osteoarthritis, your GP will first ask you about your symptoms and examine your joints.

Your GP may suspect osteoarthritis if:

  • you're aged 50 or older
  • you have joint pain that gets worse the more you use your joints
  • you have stiffness in your joints in the morning that lasts less than 30 minutes, or no stiffness at all

If your symptoms are slightly different from those listed above, this may indicate another joint condition. For example, prolonged joint stiffness in the morning can be a sign of rheumatoid arthritis.

Further tests – such as X-rays or blood tests – aren't usually necessary, but may be used to rule out other possible causes, such as rheumatoid arthritis or a fractured bone.

Treating osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is a long-term condition and can't be cured, but it doesn't necessarily get any worse over time and it can sometimes gradually improve. A number of treatments are also available to reduce the symptoms.

Mild symptoms can sometimes be managed with simple measures including:

  • regular exercise
  • losing weight if you're overweight
  • wearing suitable footwear
  • using special devices to reduce the strain on your joints during your everyday activities

If your symptoms are more severe, you may need additional treatments such as painkilling medication and a structured exercise plan carried out under the supervision of a physiotherapist.

In a small number of cases, where the above treatments haven't helped or the damage to the joints is particularly severe, surgery may be carried out to repair, strengthen or replace a damaged joint.

Read more about treating osteoarthritis.

Living with osteoarthritis

As osteoarthritis is a long-term condition, it's important you receive support to help you cope with any issues such as reduced mobility, and advice on any necessary financial support.

Some people may find it helpful to talk to their GP or others who are living with osteoarthritis, as there may be questions or worries you want to share.

Read about living with osteoarthritis.

Preventing osteoarthritis

It's not possible to prevent osteoarthritis altogether. However, you may be able to minimise your risk of developing the condition by avoiding injury and staying as healthy as possible.

Exercise

Avoid exercise that puts strain on your joints and forces them to bear an excessive load, such as running and weight training. Instead, try exercises such as swimming and cycling, where your joints are better supported and the strain on your joints is more controlled.

Try to do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (such as cycling or fast walking) every week to build up your muscle strength and keep yourself generally healthy.

Read about health and fitness – including tips on simple exercises you can do at home.

Posture

It can also help 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.

Read about common posture mistakes and fixes.

Losing weight

Being overweight or obese can increase the strain on your joints and increase your risk of developing osteoarthritis. If you're overweight, losing weight may help lower your chances of developing the condition.

To find out whether you're overweight or obese, use the healthy weight calculator.

Read more about losing weight.

Want to know more?




Osteoarthritis: Elaine's story

According to Elaine: "Your brain is the best painkiller you've got." She talks about her experience of osteoarthritis and how she manages the condition.

Media last reviewed: 27/04/2015

Next review due: 27/04/2017

Page last reviewed: 04/08/2016

Next review due: 04/08/2019