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This article was last updated on 4/20/2007.
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Topic Overview

Illustration of the skeletal system

What is osteoarthritis?

Healthy joints help your body move, bend, and twist. Knees glide up and down stairs without creaking or crunching. Hips move you along on a walk without a complaint. But when osteoarthritis affects your joints, such simple, everyday movements can hurt. Taking the stairs can be painful. Walking a few steps, opening a door, and even combing your hair can be hard.

Osteoarthritis is mainly a disease of the hips, knees, hands, neck, and low backClick here to see an illustration.. But it can happen in other joints too. A joint is where two bones connect. And you have them all over your body.

Osteoarthritis is most common in older people. Although you cannot cure arthritis, there are many treatments that can help with your pain and make it easier for you to move. And you can do things to keep the damage from getting worse.

What causes osteoarthritis?

The simplest way to describe osteoarthritis is that it is wear and tear on the cartilage of your joints. Your joints have cushioning inside them called cartilage. This tissue is firm, thick, and slippery. It covers and protects the ends of bonesClick here to see an illustration. where they meet to form a joint.

With osteoarthritis, there are changes in the cartilage that cause it to break down. When it breaks down, the bones rub together and cause damage and pain. Experts do not know why this breakdown in cartilage happens. But aging, joint injury, and genetics may be a part of the reason.

What are the symptoms?

  • Pain: Your joints may ache, or the pain may feel burning or sharp. For some people, it may get better after a while. Pain while sleeping or constant pain may be a sign that your arthritis is getting worse.
  • Stiffness: When you have arthritis, getting up in the morning can be hard. Your joints may feel stiff and creaky for a short time, until you get moving. You may also get stiff from sitting.
  • Muscle weakness: The muscles around the joint may get weaker. This happens a lot with arthritis in the knee.
  • Swelling: Arthritis can cause swelling in joints, making them feel tender and sore.
  • Deformed joints: Joints can start to look like they are the wrong shape, especially as arthritis gets worse.
  • Cracking and creaking: Your joints may make crunching, creaking sounds.

How is osteoarthritis diagnosed?

Your doctor will want to make sure your pain is caused by arthritis and not another problem. So first, you will need to describe your symptoms as best you can. Your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms. Examples of questions include:

  • Is the pain burning, aching, or sharp?
  • Are your joints stiff in the morning? If yes, how long does the stiffness last?
  • Do you have any joint swelling?

Knowing these things will help your doctor make a diagnosis. If your joints are tender and swollen and the muscles are weak, this will also help your doctor confirm whether you have arthritis. You may also have X-rays to check your joints for damage. Your doctor may want to do blood tests or other tests to see if there are other causes for your pain.

How is it treated?

There are many treatments for arthritis, but what works for someone else may not help you. Work with your doctor to find what is best for you. Often a mix of things helps most.

If your pain is mild, you may only need pain medicines you can buy without a prescription. These include acetaminophen (such as Tylenol), aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen (such as Aleve). But if you still have pain, you may need a stronger prescription medicine. Because you will take these medicines for a long time, you will need to have regular checkups from your doctor.

Using ice or heat on the painful joint can help. Heat may help you loosen up before an activity. Ice is a good pain reliever after activity or exercise. Your doctor may give you gels or creams that you can rub on the joint to make it stop hurting. Having shots of medicine in the joint also helps some people.

If you are overweight, losing weight may be one of the best things you can do for your arthritis. It helps take some stress off your joints. Exercise is also good, because it can help make your muscles stronger. Having stronger thigh muscles, for example, can help reduce stress on your knees. Swimming, bicycling, and walking are good activities. But make sure you talk to your doctor about what kind of activity is best for you. You may also get help from a physical therapist.

If your pain gets so bad that you have trouble walking, you may need surgery. Hips and knees that have been severely damaged can be replaced with man-made joints.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about osteoarthritis:

Being diagnosed:

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Living with osteoarthritis:

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Author: Robin Parks, MSLast Updated: April 20, 2007
Medical Review: E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Stanford M. Shoor, MD - Rheumatology

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