Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common joint disorder. It is due to aging and wear and tear on a joint.
Cartilage is the firm, rubbery tissue that cushions your bones at the joints. It allows bones to glide over one another. When the cartilage breaks down and wears away, the bones rub together. This often causes the pain, swelling, and stiffness of OA.
As OA worsens, bony spurs or extra bone may form around the joint. The ligaments and muscles around the joint may become weaker and stiffer.
Before age 55, OA occurs equally in men and women. After age 55, it is more common in women.
Other factors can also lead to OA.
Medical conditions that can lead to OA include:
Symptoms of OA often appear in middle age. Almost everyone has some symptoms by age 70.
Pain and stiffness in the joints are the most common symptoms. The pain is often worse:
With OA, your joints may become stiffer and harder to move over time. You may notice a rubbing, grating, or crackling sound when you move the joint.
"Morning stiffness" refers to the pain and stiffness you feel when you first wake up in the morning. Stiffness due to OA often lasts for 30 minutes or less. It can last more than 30 minutes if there is inflammation in the joint. It often improves after activity, allowing the joint to "warm up."
During the day, the pain may get worse when you are active and feel better when you are resting. As OA gets worse, you may have pain even when you are resting. And it may wake you up at night.
Some people might not have symptoms, even though x-rays show the changes of OA.
A health care provider will examine you and ask about your symptoms. The exam may show:
Blood tests are not helpful in diagnosing OA.
An x-ray will likely show:
OA cannot be cured. It will most likely get worse over time. However, your OA symptoms can be controlled.
You can have surgery, but other treatments can improve your pain and make your life much better. Although these treatments cannot make the arthritis go away, they can often delay surgery.
Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers can help with OA symptoms. You can buy these medicines without a prescription.
Most doctors recommend acetaminophen (Tylenol) first. DO NOT take more than 3 grams (3,000 mg) a day. If you have liver disease, talk with your doctor before taking acetaminophen.
If your pain continues, your doctor may recommend nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Types of NSAIDs include aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen.
Supplements that you may use include:
Staying active and getting exercise can maintain joint and overall movement. Ask your health care provider to recommend an exercise routine. Water exercises, such as swimming, are helpful.
Other lifestyle tips include:
If the pain from OA gets worse, keeping up with activities may become more difficult or painful. Making changes around the home can help take stress off your joints to relieve some of the pain. If your work is causing stress in certain joints, you may need to adjust your work area or change work tasks.
Physical therapy can help improve muscle strength and the motion of stiff joints as well as your balance. If therapy does not make you feel better after 6 to 8 weeks, then it likely will not work at all.
Massage therapy may provide short-term pain relief. Make sure you work with a licensed massage therapist who is experienced in working on sensitive joints.
Splints and braces may help support weakened joints. Some types limit or prevent the joint from moving. Others may shift pressure off of 1 portion of a joint. Use a brace only when your doctor or therapist recommends one. Using a brace the wrong way can cause joint damage, stiffness, and pain.
Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese treatment. It is thought that when acupuncture needles stimulate certain points on the body, chemicals that block pain are released. Acupuncture may provide short-term pain relief for OA.
S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe, pronounced "Sammy") is a manmade form of a natural chemical in the body. It may help reduce joint inflammation and pain.
Severe cases of OA might need surgery to replace or repair damaged joints. Options include:
Organizations that specialize in arthritis are good resources for more information on OA.
Your movement may become limited over time. Doing everyday activities, such as personal hygiene, household chores, or cooking may become a challenge. Treatment usually improves function.
Call your provider if you have symptoms of OA that get worse.
Try not to overuse a painful joint at work or during activities. Maintain a normal body weight. Keep the muscles around your joints strong, especially the weight-bearing joints (knee, hip, or ankle).
Reviewed By: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.