Signs and Symptoms of Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. Signs and symptoms of osteoarthritis include joint pain and stiffness, limited range of motion, and joint enlargement or swelling. Cartilage loss is common in osteoarthritis, and symptom onset usually accompanies the gradual loss of cartilage in an affected joint.

senior woman suffering from knee pain at home, health problem concept
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Frequent Symptoms

Primary osteoarthritis is the type of osteoarthritis most commonly diagnosed. It develops as the result of cartilage loss and joint degeneration, and typically with advancing age, but is not associated with any other cause.

Secondary osteoarthritis is associated with another cause, such as joint injury, obesity, or another joint condition.

Common symptoms of both types of osteoarthritis include:

  • Joint pain or tenderness
  • Stiffness or limited range of motion
  • Joint inflammation or enlargement
  • Crepitus (cracking, grinding, or popping)
  • Joint instability
  • Joint deformity or malalignment

It is interesting to note that people with osteoarthritis can have joint damage that is evident on a conventional X-ray while experiencing few symptoms. Conversely, it is possible for someone with osteoarthritis to have pain or other symptoms while not having X-ray evidence of the disease.

Joint Pain

Pain is the primary symptom associated with osteoarthritis, and it is linked to functional impairment and disability in people with the disease. Usually, osteoarthritis pain develops gradually.

With mild to moderate osteoarthritis, pain typically worsens with use of the joint (i.e., with activity) and improves with rest. As the disease progresses, pain is usually more persistent and constant, and may not be relieved by rest or conservative treatments for osteoarthritis. While pain at rest can be a sign of more severe or advanced disease, it can also be a sign of local joint inflammation.

Pain associated with osteoarthritis is not coming from cartilage loss directly. Cartilage is aneural, meaning that it has no nerve tissue. The pain is likely tied to adjacent structures, such as stretching of the joint capsule by bony enlargement, subchondral bone microfractures, synovitis, or other structural changes.

Call Your Healthcare Provider Immediately

If you have signs of acute joint inflammation (redness, pain, heat, or swelling) or have severe joint pain, see your healthcare provider right away.

Joint Stiffness

Morning stiffness is common with osteoarthritis and typically lasts 30 minutes or less (less than is characteristic of rheumatoid arthritis). Joint stiffness associated with osteoarthritis also tends to recur throughout the day, especially following periods of inactivity (what's known as gelling).

People with osteoarthritis also commonly complain of joint stiffness when there is stormy weather approaching (caused by changes in barometric pressure).

Joint Tenderness

With palpation (touch), it is common for there to be pain or tenderness, especially along the joint margin. Periarticular structures (i.e., structures that surround the joint) may also exhibit tenderness due to bursitis or tendinitis adjacent to the joint.

Limited Range of Motion

Loss of normal range of motion in joints affected by osteoarthritis can develop because of pain, swelling, flexion contractures, and abnormalities associated with cartilage loss, such as malalignment of the joint or mechanical inhibition of the joint related to loose bodies.

Joint Swelling

Osteoarthritis generally does not cause swelling or an effusion. Swelling and effusions are usually the result of inflammation or trauma.

Joint Enlargement

Joint enlargement is characteristic of osteoarthritis and may be associated with bony enlargement or joint effusion. Joint enlargement is very common with hand osteoarthritis, particularly the DIP (distal interphalangeal joints) and PIP (proximal interphalangeal joints) of the hand.

The formation of osteophytes (bony outgrowths or bone spurs), which can be felt under the skin in the area of any joint, may also contribute to bony growths or joint enlargement. Heberden's nodes and Bouchard's nodes are characteristic of osteoarthritis. Effusions associated with osteoarthritis are typically non-inflammatory and not associated with redness or warmth.


Active or passive movement of any joint affected by osteoarthritis may cause crackling or grinding sensations (crepitus). The sensations may be audible or palpable. The condition is caused by irregular or rough surfaces of the joint—surfaces that normally would be smooth—or by debris within the joint. 

Joint Deformity or Malalignment

Severe cartilage loss in the affected joint can result in malalignment or deformity.

Malalignment is often evident with knee osteoarthritis. A knee with normal alignment has its load-bearing axis on a line that runs down the middle of the leg. When a knee is malaligned, it can be varus or valgus (bow-legged or knock-kneed, respectively).

Varus malalignment is common with severe knee osteoarthritis, but it also may occur with mild to moderate disease. Medial compartment knee osteoarthritis is also usually associated with varus malalignment, while lateral compartment knee osteoarthritis is typically associated with valgus malalignment.   

Joint Instability

Unstable joints can be caused by joint pain, joint stiffness, or joint deformity. The instability may cause you to feel like a weight-bearing joint will buckle or give out. It can also cause a joint to lock, which affects stability.

Local Inflammation

Osteoarthritis is not a systemic inflammatory disease. While there may be soft tissue swelling or effusion, inflammation is localized in osteoarthritis and less impactful compared to inflammatory types of arthritis.

Rare Symptoms

Depending on which joints are affected, you may have other symptoms that don't typically come to mind when you think "arthritis." These symptoms often occur when osteoarthritis is affecting the neck or spine.

Uncommon symptoms of osteoarthritis include:

  • Numbness and tingling of the arms or legs
  • Weakness of the arms or legs
  • Headache that is centralized on the back of the head
  • Pain that radiates from your shoulder blade down your arm

There are many other health problems that can cause these symptoms, though, so you should always bring them to your healthcare provider's attention so that you can get a correct diagnosis.



7 Risk Factors for Developing Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is a progressive disease, so joint damage can worsen over time. As osteoarthritis progresses, so does pain, stiffness, and limited mobility. You may find it harder to do things like button your shirt, drive, or get in and out of bed.

If osteoarthritis limits your movement significantly, the resulting sedentary lifestyle can lead to weight gain. Not only does being overweight worsen osteoarthritis, it can also lead to diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease over the long term. Gentle exercise is ideal to combat this.

Another problem that develops as osteoarthritis progresses is an increased risk of falling. Joint instability, muscle weakness, and limited mobility decrease balance and make it harder to catch yourself. If you do fall, you're at an increased risk of injury such as broken bones.

Your healthcare provider can help create an appropriate treatment plan for your osteoarthritis, which, in turn, can help lessen the chances of these complications.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Some people chalk joint pain and stiffness up to normal aging, so they don't discuss symptoms with their healthcare provider. Regardless of its cause, it is worth getting a formal diagnosis of osteoarthritis, as it can be managed, reducing your pain. While there is no cure, early treatment can help slow the progression of this disease.

No matter what your age, if you have these symptoms, you should be seen by a healthcare provider:

  • Joint pain that lasts for more than several days
  • Pain or stiffness that comes and goes over the course of several weeks
  • Joint pain that isn't relieved by over-the-counter pain medication or that returns after stopping such a drug
  • Pain, stiffness, inflammation, or creaking for which you aren't sure of the cause, or that is concerning to you

If you have already been diagnosed with osteoarthritis, let your healthcare provider know if your osteoarthritis is getting worse. In particular, be on the lookout for:

  • Increased pain or grinding
  • Signs of bone spurs (bumps on the joint)
  • A joint that looks out of alignment
  • Joint locking

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the signs and symptoms of osteoarthritis?

    The main symptoms are joint pain and stiffness. The pain tends to get worse with activity and improve with rest. Joint stiffness is generally worse in the morning and improves with movement. Joint locking and crepitus (a crackling noise) can also occur, typically as the disease advances.

  • Which joints are most affected by osteoarthritis?

    Osteoarthritis is most common in the hands, feet, spine, and weight-bearing joints such as the hip or knee.

  • When do symptoms of osteoarthritis first appear?

    Osteoarthritis is largely an aging-related disease. As such, symptoms are most common in people 50 and over. With that said, osteoarthritis can also affect younger people due to factors like obesity, a prior joint injury, being athletic, having diabetes, or having a job that places ongoing stress on joints.

  • Can the symptoms of osteoarthritis be reversed?

    Generally no, but the symptoms can be significantly relieved with treatment. The loss of cartilage and destructive changes in bones can really only be "reversed" with a joint replacement, which is indicated only when osteoarthritis is causing the severe loss of mobility and quality of life.

  • What are the possible complications of osteoarthritis?

    One of the common complications of osteoarthritis is a bony enlargement of the smaller joints of the fingers, called Heberden's nodes or Bouchard's nodes. Severe osteoarthritis increases the risk of pinched spinal nerves, bleeding inside a joint, joint infection, osteonecrosis (bone death), and stress fractures.

  • How do symptoms of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis differ?

    Osteoarthritis (OA) is caused by wear and tear on a joint, whereas rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease affecting joints. RA differs from OA in that it can occur at any age, is commonly accompanied by fatigue and malaise, and often affects the same joint on both sides of the body. These are features less commonly associated with OA.

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By Carol Eustice
Carol Eustice is a writer covering arthritis and chronic illness, who herself has been diagnosed with both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.