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Arthritis: What is Osteoarthritis?

Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD, Marianne Madsen, Ananta Subedi, MD, and Rubaiya Mallay, DO on January 18, 2023

Most people have an older family member or relative who suffers from “arthritis.” But few are truly informed on the topic. “Arthritis” actually refers to a group of conditions with similar symptoms. What causes arthritis? Who gets it? How is it treated? You may already know that the condition causes joint pain and stiffness, but there’s much else to learn.


Let’s talk about the most common form of arthritis–osteoarthritis. 




In osteoarthritis, the cartilage in the joints between the bones slowly breaks down during the aging process. Because of this, the condition is commonly referred to as “wear-and-tear” arthritis. Osteoarthritis typically affects the hips, knees, low back and some of your hand joints.


Osteoarthritis can affect your quality of life due to chronic joint pain. For example, an older person with the condition may find they are no longer able to enjoy hands-on hobbies such as woodworking or playing an instrument due to the joint pain caused by the disease.


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Arthritis - Overview

Arthritis - Overview



Osteoarthritis is caused by joint cartilage breaking down over time. The event that causes cartilage breakdown may be different for every sufferer of the disease–one or several factors may be involved, including joint injury, older age, and repetitive stress or overuse of the joints. 


Risk Factors


Osteoarthritis affects more than 32 million Americans. Typically, osteoarthritis develops in older adults, as joint damage happens over a period of many years, but people who work with their hands, play high-impact sports, have suffered joint injuries, are female, have a genetic predisposition, have musculoskeletal abnormalities, or are obese are all at higher risk for osteoarthritis.




Symptoms of osteoarthritis typically include:


  • Joint pain and stiffness
  • Swelling
  • Impaired range of motion and flexibility
  • Weakness in affected joint


How symptoms affect you depends on where your osteoarthritis is located. For example, if you have osteoarthritis in your knee, you may have pain while walking or weakness in the affected knee. If your hip is affected, you may have difficulty putting your shoes on or pain when getting out of bed.


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Arthritis - Symptoms

Arthritis - Symptoms



Osteoarthritis is diagnosed using a combination of methods. First, a doctor will review the patient’s symptoms and examine the joints.


Other tests can confirm the diagnosis. Imaging tests such as MRI and X-ray can scan for bone damage, while a procedure called joint aspiration can help rule out other related conditions.




Osteoarthritis has no cure. Treatment involves a combination of medications, physical therapy, and lifestyle changes.


Medications used for osteoarthritis include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin and ibuprofen, which can reduce pain and inflammation in the joints. Corticosteroids, which also reduce inflammation, are often used–either taken by mouth or injected into the joint. Topical patches are useful as well. Other options for treatment include Platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections. The antidepressant duloxetine (Cymbalta) and the anti-seizure drug pregabalin (Lyrica) are oral medicines that are FDA-approved to treat OA pain. Narcotics can also be used for severe cases.


Some other treatments for osteoarthritis include using hot or cold compresses on the affected area, wearing special shoes if the joints in your legs are affected, or undergoing surgery. Surgical procedures are rarely used except for in cases that do not respond to conventional treatment, but methods such as joint replacement or joint fusing can be successful in relieving symptoms. 


Living With Osteoarthritis


No one wants an osteoarthritis diagnosis. But through various lifestyle changes, you can live a healthy and comfortable life with reduced symptoms.


Exercise, for example, is important to keep off excess weight (obesity can worsen osteoarthritis) and strengthen the muscles. There’s no need to pick up heavy weights – low-impact exercises like yoga or light jogging can be very beneficial.


One’s diet can also have an impact. A diet high in fatty or processed foods increases risk of obesity and inflammation throughout the body. Try to eat home-cooked meals, avoid soft drinks, and get plenty of fruits and vegetables. Choose whole grains over refined ones and avoid added sugar.


Avoid putting stress on the affected joints. Find ways to use other muscles during activities like lifting heavy objects or cleaning. 


Osteoarthritis doesn’t only have a physical impact – it can take a toll on one’s mental health as well. If you’re feeling alone in dealing with your condition, you can join a support group or speak with a counselor.


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Arthritis - Medication

Arthritis - Medication

Prognosis and Complications


Osteoarthritis affects everyone differently, and the affected joint plays a role in symptoms and prognosis, so it’s impossible to know how osteoarthritis will affect the individual patient until they’ve already lived with it for some time. 


Osteoarthritis can, though, lead to numerous complications, although not everyone with the disease will experience the same ones.


Since osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease, a patient may initially have minimal symptoms but find that they have worsened over a period of several years. 


To minimize your risk of complications, follow your doctor’s advice on treatment and make healthy lifestyle choices. 




Osteoarthritis can’t be fully prevented, but you can make some lifestyle changes to reduce your risk of developing the condition. These include staying at a healthy body weight, exercising regularly, eating well, and minimizing stress on the joints. If you have diabetes, keep your blood sugar levels in check, as hyperglycemia can raise your risk of osteoarthritis. 


Note: Although exercise is one of the best things you can do to stay healthy, it’s crucial to work out with proper form to avoid injury. Working out with poor form can injure the joints and increase your risk for osteoarthritis. 




More than 32 million American adults suffer from osteoarthritis, and that number is steadily rising. In fact, it’s estimated that by 2040, 78 million Americans will be living with the condition. 


Osteoarthritis primarily affects middle-aged and older adults, and white people are most likely to develop the disease. 88 percent of people with osteoarthritis are over 45 years old, while 78 percent of osteoarthritis sufferers are white. 


Worldwide, costs related to osteoarthritis have reached a figure of $136 billion. 




Osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease caused by cartilage breakdown in the joints. The condition results in joint pain, stiffness, swelling, and weakness. Older adults are most affected, but anyone can develop osteoarthritis, particularly those who work with their hands or who have suffered joint injuries. 


Written by Natan Rosenfeld

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