Severe Osteoarthritis Symptoms and Treatment

Close-up of an old wrinkled hand holding a cane.

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Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis affecting the joints. Osteoarthritis symptoms can range from mild to severe and can progress over time.

In a healthy person, cartilage normally covers the ends of your bones where the joint forms. With severe osteoarthritis, the cartilage erodes and bone rubs on bone. When your bones rub together, the shape of your joint can change, resulting in joint deformity and joint instability.

This might result in the development of an inflamed synovium (a soft tissue that lines the joints and other structures), osteophytes (bone spurs), contracted (shortened) ligaments, as well as muscle weakness around the affected joint.

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7 Risk Factors for Developing Osteoarthritis

Who Develops Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis can affect any joint in the body, including the hands, feet, knees, and hips. The specific joints affected and the severity can vary from person to person, and so can the causes.

Some people might develop osteoarthritis because of genetics, while some might develop due to an injury. Certain conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis, can also increase your risk of developing osteoarthritis.

Osteoarthritis is most common in people over the age of 65. According to the Arthritis Foundation:

  • 45% of adults will develop symptoms of knee osteoarthritis.
  • 25% will develop hip osteoarthritis.
  • 40% will develop osteoarthritis in at least one hand by age 85.

Symptoms

As you would expect, severe osteoarthritis typically causes more pain than the early stages of osteoarthritis do.

With severe osteoarthritis, pain can occur with activity and motion, as well as when you are at rest. The range of motion of your affected joints will likely be severely limited if you have severe osteoarthritis.

You may also experience joint buckling or locking. Joint locking might sound like just a nuisance, but there can be serious consequences if a joint buckles or locks. For example, a knee joint that buckles can cause a fall that might result in a fractured hip.

Other symptoms may include:

  • Stiffness upon waking
  • Swelling around the joints after periods of prolonged use
  • Clicking or cracking joint noises
  • Joint pain that worsens as the day progresses
  • Difficulty performing everyday tasks
  • Increased incidents of falling and tripping

Treatment

Not every osteoarthritis case progresses to an advanced stage. Some people develop a mild form that eventually stabilizes. With severe osteoarthritis, the joint damage is not reversible. In these cases, joint replacement surgery is often the best option for regaining functionality and independence.

If you have mild osteoarthritis, your healthcare provider may prescribe a range of medications—including analgesics, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), corticosteroids, and hyaluronic acid—or therapies to help manage pain and prevent severe osteoarthritis from developing.

If you are overweight, your healthcare provider may suggest you lose weight to help protect your joints from stress. Your healthcare provider may also recommend physical therapy or exercise to help strengthen the muscles around your joints.

If your symptoms are severe or restricting your mobility, you can use an assistive device—like a cane—to make getting around less painful.

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2 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. Arthritis Foundation. Osteoarthritis Causes.

  2. Arthritis Foundation. Arthritis by the numbers: Book of trusted facts & figures. Published 2020.

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