What to Expect From an Osteoarthritis Diagnosis

Woman on a stool with knee pain

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Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common type of arthritis, affecting nearly 27 million adults in the United States. The symptoms of osteoarthritis, such as pain and stiffness in the affected joints, can have a significant impact on your ability to complete daily tasks and your quality of life. It's important, then, to understand the details of your OA in order to start treatment and incorporate management strategies as soon as you're diagnosed.

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7 Risk Factors for Developing Osteoarthritis

Joint Pain

Pain is a hallmark of osteoarthritis. The nature of OA pain is dependent on the extent of joint damage a person has. Osteoarthritis pain is not the same for every person, nor does any individual experience pain exactly the same every day.

Pain develops as cartilage wears away in the arthritic joint. 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.

In the early stages of the disease, joints may ache after physical work or activity and pain may be relieved with rest.

Joint Stiffness

Affected joints can be stiff, interfering with mobility and limiting range of motion. This is especially common first thing in the morning or after being in one position for an extended period of time. As the disease progresses, joint pain and joint stiffness become more persistent.

Swelling, Crepitus, and Locking

There can also be swelling in one or more joints, in which case joints may be tender to the touch. Another characteristic of OA is crepitus, a crunching or grating feeling, which includes the sound of bone rubbing on bone.

It is also not uncommon for joints affected by OA to "lock" to the point that you will be unable to move the joint.

Other Symptoms

With osteoarthritis, pain and stiffness usually are 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 instead have rheumatoid arthritis or another kind of inflammatory arthritis. Fever, flu-like symptoms, and malaise typically accompany inflammatory types of arthritis and generally are not experienced with osteoarthritis.

Treatment

No two people experience osteoarthritis in the same way. Your rheumatologist or primary care physician will choose from a wide variety of options for treating OA symptoms and managing mobility issues, including but not limited to:

Lifestyle measures and modifications: The most effective ones are weight loss, exercise, blood sugar control (diabetes can cause inflammation throughout the body, including joints), hot or cold therapy (heating pad or ice pack), and improving biomechanics (for example, learning ways to lift heavy objects without stressing arthritic joints).

According to the Arthritis Foundation, these lifestyle changes may do more than help to manage symptoms of OA: They may even slow the progression of the disease.

Oral pain medication: Depending on the degree of discomfort you have and the joints that are affected, you may get adequate relief with over-the-counter oral analgesics such as acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol), or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Advil and others) or naproxen (Aleve). If these aren't effective, your healthcare provider may prescribe stronger drugs.

Topical pain medication: These are ointments, cremes, lotions, or medicated patches that are applied directly to affected joints. Some are available over the counter (for example, Ben-Gay, Voltaren, and Salonpas patches), while others require a prescription, such as Flector (diclofenac epolamine) and Pennsaid (diclofenac). Topicals tend to be best for small areas of pain such as knuckles.

Corticosteroid injections: Also known as intra-articular steroid injections, this involves injecting a corticosteroid medication directly into the space between the two bones in a joint to relieve inflammation.

Medical devices: Kinesiotape, orthotics, braces, and canes are all effective for providing support to arthritic joints and helping to prevent further damage.

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM): Acupuncture, yoga, tai chi, and cognitive behavioral therapy all have been shown to help relieve OA symptoms in various joints.

Surgery: In severe cases, partial or full replacement of a joint may be necessary.

A Word From Verywell

Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis. Left untreated, OA can be debilitating and cause disability. But pain and stiffness can be managed early on with various therapies. These therapies can help you to maintain mobility and remain active. While OA can affect many aspects of your life, there is a lot you can do to reduce pain and the potential for complications.

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7 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.
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