Understanding What to Expect From an Osteoarthritis Diagnosis

What does osteoarthritis feel like?

Senior woman in gym wearing wrist strap, rubbing shoulder
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Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis, affecting nearly 27 million adults in the United States. It's easy to find a list of symptoms associated with osteoarthritis and information on how it can affect almost every aspect of daily life. But, on any given day, from the time you wake up until the time you go to bed, what does it feel like to have osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis and Joint Pain

With osteoarthritis, your affected joints are painful. Most people describe osteoarthritis pain as achy, not sharp. But truly that depends on the extent of the joint damage. The pain is not the same for every person who has osteoarthritis, nor does any individual experience the pain exactly the same every day.

Pain develops as cartilage wears away in the arthritic joint, leaving the underlying bone vulnerable to damage. In early stages of the disease, joints may ache after physical work or activity, and be relieved by rest.

Cartilage usually provides a slick and smooth surface that the bones of the joint can easily glide over. It also provides shock absorption. Losing cartilage results in a rough surface and even bone-on-bone contact.

Joint Stiffness

The affected joints are typically stiff so that it's hard to move them through their normal range of motion. This is especially common after waking up in the morning or staying in one position for an extended period of time. As the disease progresses, joint pain and joint stiffness become more persistent.

Swelling, Crepitus, and Joints That Stick

There can also be swelling in one or more joints, in which case they may be tender to the touch. Another characteristic of osteoarthritis is crepitus, a crunching feeling or grating, the sound of bone rubbing on bone. It is also not uncommon for joints affected by osteoarthritis to "lock" so you are unable to move the joint much, if at all.

Osteoarthritis or Another Type of Arthritis?

With osteoarthritis, the pain and stiffness are usually limited to the affected joints. The joints most commonly affected by osteoarthritis are those at the ends of the fingers, thumbs, neck, lower back, knees, and hips.

If you feel warmth or your skin appears red around a joint, that is an indication of inflammation. You may have rheumatoid arthritis or another inflammatory arthritis rather than osteoarthritis. Fever, flu-like symptoms, and malaise typically accompany inflammatory types of arthritis rather than osteoarthritis.

Diagnosis and Treatment

For an accurate diagnosis, see your doctor. Don't ignore symptoms or assume they will go away. Your doctor will take your medical history, history of symptoms, and often will perform imaging studies and blood tests.

Treatment for arthritis joint pain includes exercise, which is one of the primary treatments. Your doctor will recommend appropriate strengthening exercise, range-of-motion exercise, aerobic exercise, and balance and agility exercise. Non-drug treatments may be recommended such as heat and cold and transcutaneous electrical stimulation. Medications may be recommended or prescribed, including over-the-counter pain relievers and NSAIDs. For some joints, corticosteroids may be prescribed or surgery may be recommended.

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