What Is Osteoarthritis?

The most prevalent type of arthritis

Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most prevalent type of arthritis. It occurs when the smooth, slippery cartilage that coats the endings of bones begins to deteriorate at a joint (where two bones meet). This wear and tear can increase friction, bone spurring, pain, and stiffness.

Though OA can develop at any joint, it is most common in the hands, spine, knees, hips, and feet.

This article will outline the most common causes, symptoms, and treatments for osteoarthritis.

person holding knee

Srdjan Radevic / EyeEm

The Anatomy of a Joint

When two bones meet, a joint forms. A smooth, slippery coating—called cartilage—coats the endings of bones and helps one glide against the other.

What Are the Symptoms of Osteoarthritis?

Several hallmark symptoms are typically seen with osteoarthritis. Some of the most common are:

  • Mild to severe joint pain
  • Crunching or rubbing sensations within the joint
  • Swelling
  • Morning joint stiffness that improves with movement

In addition, several specific signs may present depending on which joint is affected. This includes:

  • Hands: OA of the hands can cause small, bony knobs in the fingers and can lead to joint enlargement or gnarling in this area.
  • Knees: OA in these joints can lead to difficulty with walking, getting up from sitting, and stair negotiation. It can also cause grinding, scraping, and eventually, knee-buckling.
  • Hips: In addition to hip soreness and stiffness, OA in this area can cause referred pain to the groin, inner thigh, buttocks, or knees. It can also lead to difficulty bending over.
  • Spine: Aside from soreness and stiffness in the neck or lower back, this type of OA can lead to compression of the spinal nerves. When this occurs, weakness, tingling, or numbness can present in the arms or legs. 

Osteoarthritis Causes: Why Does OA Wear Down Joints and Bones?

Many people hear that a lifetime of physical activity or exercise can develop osteoarthritis in their bones and joints. However, a recent review dispelled this myth and found moderate physical activity does not cause OA to develop. Instead, it identified several other potential causes, including:

  • Prior traumatic injury
  • Weakness in the surrounding muscles
  • Excessive or repetitive physical activities at work
  • Leg length discrepancy

Risk Factors for Osteoarthritis

Many OA risk factors may potentially elevate your likelihood of developing osteoarthritis. These include:

The research establishing these risk factors is still in progress. Speak to a healthcare provider about your specific situation and any personal risk factors that may need modifying.

Can You Prevent Osteoarthritis?

Preventing osteoarthritis from progressing or becoming symptomatic may be possible if you address some of the condition’s risk factors. Some strategies that may benefit you include:

  • Maintaining healthy body weight and avoiding obesity
  • Participating in injury-prevention training programs before playing sports
  • Building strength in the supporting musculature around your joints
  • Using bracing during potentially aggravating activities at work or while exercising

Osteoarthritis vs. Rheumatoid Arthritis

There are significant differences between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. For example:

  • Osteoarthritis occurs after wear and tear cause a bone’s cartilage to deteriorate at a joint. This increases friction, excessive bony buildup, and pain or soreness. OA commonly affects weight-bearing joints (like the hips or knees) and frequently occurs on only one side of the body.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that causes your body’s immune system to attack its joint tissue. This tissue damage frequently leads to pain, swelling, and inflammation. RA most commonly impacts smaller joints, like those in the hands or feet, and is usually seen simultaneously on both sides of the body.

There are significant differences between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

As previously mentioned, osteoarthritis occurs after wear and tear cause a bone’s cartilage to deteriorate at a joint. This increases friction, excessive bony buildup, and pain or soreness. OA commonly affects weight-bearing joints (like the hips or knees) and frequently occurs on only one side of the body.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), on the other hand, is an autoimmune disease that causes your body’s immune system to attack its joint tissue. This tissue damage frequently leads to pain, swelling, and inflammation. RA most commonly impacts smaller joints, like those in the hands or feet, and is usually seen simultaneously on both sides of the body.  

Tests to Diagnose Osteoarthritis

To accurately diagnose osteoarthritis, a healthcare provider usually performs a comprehensive evaluation. During this process, they will examine the affected joint(s) and take a personal history of your symptoms.

They may also obtain an X-ray to provide a clear image of the joint in question. This test can show damage to your bone, bone spurring, and any loss of space within the affected joint.

Finally, they can order magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) if they suspect concurrent damage to the muscles, ligaments, tendons, or other soft tissue structures.

Osteoarthritis Treatment

Depending on the severity of your arthritis symptoms, they may suggest several different treatment strategies. The most common are outlined below.


Pain relievers or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) medications are frequently recommended to help treat OA pain and inflammation. Pain-relieving creams, rubs, or sprays may also help. Occasionally, a stronger corticosteroid may need to be taken orally or injected into the joint to alleviate a severe OA aggravation.

Lifestyle Changes and Self-Care

One of the biggest lifestyle changes you can make to impact your OA symptoms is maintaining a healthy body weight. Losing excess weight can:

  • Help reduce added stress on an arthritic joint
  • Improve your daily function
  • Diminish your overall pain

Staying active with an exercise program focusing on strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular fitness is another cornerstone of OA self-care. A healthcare provider can guide safe ways to begin a new fitness regimen. They may also refer you to physical therapy for more structured guidance on appropriate osteoarthritis exercise techniques.


In severe cases of OA, surgery may be necessary. This is especially true if more conservative treatments fail to relieve your symptoms.

Depending on the affected area, this may involve a joint replacement (arthroplasty) or a joint fusion (arthrodesis) procedure. Occasionally, osteotomy surgery may also be recommended. This operation involves removing a piece of bone to alleviate pressure on the arthritic portion of the joint.


In some situations, a brace can reduce some of your osteoarthritis pain.

Most commonly utilized for knee arthritis, braces can:

  • Provide gentle compression
  • Improve stability
  • Redistribute stresses across a joint

Similar devices may also be recommended for osteoarthritis in your fingers, wrists, ankles, or elbows. Though bracing an arthritic area will not prevent OA from advancing, it may provide short-term enhancements to your day-to-day function and diminish some of your pain.

Managing Osteoarthritis Pain

Several other treatments may help you manage your osteoarthritis pain.

Because platelets play a role in regenerating tissue and controlling inflammation, some have recommended platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections for OA. Unfortunately, the research on this intervention is still mixed. Currently, there is low-level evidence showing that PRP injections may provide short- and medium-term pain relief for osteoarthritis.

Stem cell therapy has also been proposed as a potential management strategy. Stem cells are thought to help regenerate cartilage and reduce inflammation levels. Unfortunately, the evidence supporting this treatment is also still mixed. Several low-quality studies found reduced evidence of osteoarthritis and diminished pain levels after receiving this treatment. More research in this area is still necessary, however.

Does Treatment Reverse Osteoarthritis?

There is currently no evidence-based treatment that reverses osteoarthritis. That said, the presence of OA on an X-ray does not necessarily mean that you will have symptoms. It is possible to have osteoarthritis and minimal to no pain.

By staying active, maintaining a healthy body weight, taking medications as prescribed, and wearing braces if recommended, you may be able to keep pain levels low while continuing with the activities you love. 

How Osteoarthritis Progresses

Osteoarthritis usually progresses slowly and gets worse as time goes on. As the cartilage in a joint thins, friction increases with movement and triggers bone spurs. This bone adds to the irregularity of the joint surface and begins to cause inflammation, swelling, and pain.

Though these symptoms may be mild and infrequent at first, over time, the pain from severe osteoarthritis may become more intense and constant. Other factors like heavy loading of the affected joint and excessive body weight can also accelerate this process.

Living Well With Osteoarthritis

To remain active and maintain a healthy body weight in spite of osteoarthritis, try following these steps:

  • Focus on gradually incorporating low-impact aerobic exercise (walking, biking, or swimming) into your day.
  • Add flexibility-based exercises (yoga or tai-chi) and pain-free strengthening techniques into your workouts.
  • Avoid fitness regimens that increase your pain. A physical therapist can help suggest effective techniques for your specific situation.
  • Stay away from processed, sugary, or fried foods. Instead, focus on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and foods that are high in healthy fats (nuts, avocados, olive oil, and fish)
  • Discuss your situation with a doctor to ensure you are receiving appropriate OA treatment.

Outlook for Osteoarthritis

OA can cause severe pain and significantly limit overall mobility if inadequately treated. This shift to a more sedentary lifestyle may also lead to the development of other health conditions like obesity, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes.

Fortunately, many cases of osteoarthritis are effectively managed with the conservative treatments listed above. Working closely with a healthcare provider can help avoid these potential side effects and ensure a better long-term outlook.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute on Aging. Osteoarthritis.

  2. Allen KD, Golightly YM. State of the evidence. Current Opinion in Rheumatology. 2015;27(3):276-283. doi:10.1097/BOR.0000000000000161

  3. Roos EM, Arden NK. Strategies for the prevention of knee osteoarthritis. Nat Rev Rheumatol. 2016;12(2):92-101. doi:10.1038/nrrheum.2015.135

  4. Mohammed A, Alshamarri T, Adeyeye T, et al. A comparison of risk factors for osteo- and rheumatoid arthritis using NHANES dataPreventive Medicine Reports. 2020;20:101242. doi:10.1016/j.pmedr.2020.101242

  5. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Osteoarthritis: diagnosis, treatment, and steps to take.

  6. Mass General Brigham. Knee braces for osteoarthritis.

  7. Gato-Calvo L, Magalhaes J, Ruiz-Romero C, et al. Platelet-rich plasma in osteoarthritis treatment: review of current evidenceTherapeutic Advances in Chronic Disease. 2019;10:204062231982556. doi:10.1177/2040622319825567

  8. Wiggers TGH, Winters M, Van den Boom NA, et al. Autologous stem cell therapy in knee osteoarthritis: a systematic review of randomised controlled trials. Br J Sports Med.2021;55(20):1161-1169. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2020-103671

By Tim Petrie, DPT, OCS
Tim Petrie, DPT, OCS, is a board-certified orthopedic specialist who has practiced as a physical therapist for more than a decade.