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. When this happens, you may develop an inflamed synovium, the formation of osteophytes, contracted ligaments and muscle weakness around the affected joint.

Who Develops Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis can affect any joint in the body including the hands, feet, knees, and hips. Just like the severity and joints affected can vary from person to person, so can what causes osteoarthritis. Some people might develop osteoarthritis because of genetics, while cases may develop after 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, one in two adults will develop symptoms of knee osteoarthritis, one in four will develop hip osteoarthritis before the age of 85, and one in 12 people over the age of 60 have osteoarthritis in their hands.


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 can occur. Your joints locking might just sound like 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 results 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


Not every osteoarthritis patient progresses to an advanced stage. Some patients 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 doctor 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 doctor may suggest you lose weight to help protect your joints from stress. Your doctor 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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Article Sources

  • Primer on the Rheumatic Diseases. Arthritis Foundation. Thirteenth Edition. Arthritis Foundation. Osteoarthritis Treatment.