What is Osteoarthritis?

Elderly man with arthritis in his hands

The term arthritis has become a catch-all phrase that can mean a lot of different things. Most people have come to think of arthritis as a single disease. However, there are more than 100 different types of arthritic conditions that affect people of all ages1.

One of the most common forms of arthritis is osteoarthritis (OA). Osteoarthritis is characterized by joint damage caused by wear and tear that happens as we get older. Osteoarthritis can affect any joint. However, it commonly targets the hands, knees, hips and spine2. Unfortunately, osteoarthritis cannot be reversed.  But, there are steps you can take to help improve your joint pain and function.

What exactly is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is joint damage that usually happens as we age. It may also be due to previous joint injuries or lifestyle factors. Whatever the initial cause of osteoarthritis, the end result is still the same –joint damage. Bones are cushioned by a thick padded surface so that they don’t rub against one another. The cushion is known as cartilage. When the cartilage starts to wear away and disintegrate, it leaves the ends of the bones exposed. When this happens, the bones rub against one another which causes friction that leads to

  • pain,
  • swelling, and
  • stiffness3.

Once cartilage is lost, it does not come back. Over time, the joints lose their strength and stop functioning properly, leading to pain and discomfort. This all results in the progression of osteoarthritis.

Who is at risk for developing OA?

Your genetics can play a role in your risk of arthritis. Research shows the following factors may predispose some people to develop arthritis1,4,5:

  • Excess weight: excess weight puts additional stress on the joints. They are forced to carry more weight than they can manage. This wears down the joints and can lead to arthritis.
  • Age: your age is a large factor the risk of developing arthritis. — The types may include osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and gouty arthritis.
  • Sex: women are more likely than men to develop osteoarthritis, though it’s not clear why.
  • Previous joint injury: any type of traumatic injury to the joints can lead arthritis. People who have injured a joint (ie. traumatic injury or accident) are more likely to develop arthritis.
  • Work factors: jobs that require repetitive movements or heavy lifting can cause stress in the joints and/or an injury. This can lead to arthritis.


The symptoms of OA usually present in just one or a few joints in middle-aged or elderly people. The primary symptoms of osteoarthritis are6,2:

  • Joint pain: typically worse with joint use and often relieved by rest.
  • Joint stiffness
  • Limitation of motion: you may lose flexibility around the joint.
  • Grating sensation: patients sometimes hear or feel a grating sensation in the joint.
  • Instability of the joint – Giving way or buckling is a common symptom in knee osteoarthritis


The diagnosis of osteoarthritis is fairly straightforward one for your doctor. During the physical exam, your doctor will check your joints for

  • swelling,
  • redness, and
  • warmth.

Generally, he/she will also want to see how well you can move your joints or if you have reduced range of motion. Depending on the type of arthritis suspected, your doctor may take some additional tests. These tests may be a blood test or a joint fluid sample (aspiration of the joint), for example.

Imaging tests, such as Xrays or an MRI, are also used to confirm the diagnosis of osteoarthritis.


Arthritis treatment focuses on reducing symptoms and slowing any further deterioration. There are no medications that have been shown to prevent the progression of joint damage due to osteoarthritis7. However, there are steps you can take to help deal with the symptoms.

First-line medications

Once diagnosed with osteoarthritis, there are some medications that your doctor might suggest upfront. The majority of these drugs are used to manage pain. This pain management may include

  • acetaminophen,
  • non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and
  • intra-articular glucocorticoids (joint injections that reduce pain, swelling, and inflammation)7.

Lifestyle changes

Just as important as medications (if not more so) are lifestyle changes. These may include an exercise program, physiotherapy, weight loss, or diet modifications7. Sometimes these changes are suggested before the medications because of the positive effect they can have on joint pain7.

Alternative therapies

Alternative therapies may be used alongside standard medications. Such options can help control pain. For some people, they replace traditional drugs.

Options like acupuncture and joint supplements may help deal with joint pain. After using these methods many people see an improvement in their joint function. Always check with your doctor before starting alternative therapies.

Nutrition plays a significant role in managing joint conditions. You need adequate nutrition for healthy joint function. Nutrients such as

  • glucosamine,
  • chondroitin,
  • MSM,
  • Sam-E, and
  • antioxidants such as vitamin C.

Receiving these nutrients is essential to maintaining and improving joint health. Make sure that your joint supplement contains a supply of these nutrients.


Although osteoarthritis is not reversible or completely treatable, the pain, stiffness, and reduced joint function can be alleviated. People usually require a mixture of lifestyle changes, medications, and sometimes additional therapies. Due to the wide array of options, treatments that work for one individual may not work for another. Take the time to trial different techniques until you find what works for you.

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1) Arthritis Foundation. What Is Arthritis? http://www.arthritis.org/about-arthritis/understanding-arthritis/what-is-arthritis.php

2) MayoClinic. Osteoarthritis. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/osteoarthritis/home/ovc-20198248

3) WebMD. Arthritis. Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on August 29, 2016. http://www.arthritis.org/about-arthritis/understanding-arthritis/what-is-arthritis.php

4) MayoClinic. Arthritis. By Mayo Clinic Staff. January 2016. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/arthritis/symptoms-causes/dxc-20168905

5) Cleveland Clinic. Diseases and conditions. http://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases_conditions/hic_Arthritis

6) Uptodate™. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/clinical-manifestations-and-diagnosis-of-osteoarthritis?source=search_result&search=osteoarthritis&selectedTitle=1~150

7) Uptodate™. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/initial-pharmacologic-therapy-of-osteoarthritis?source=search_result&search=osteoarthritis&selectedTitle=2~150


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