What is osteoarthritis?

Arthritis is a general term that means inflammation of the joints. There are dozens of types of arthritis. Osteoarthritis is the most common type. It often comes with age, and it often affects the hands, knees, and hips.

The place where 2 bones meet is normally covered with a rubbery material called cartilage. This material allows the bones to slide over each without causing pain. When osteoarthritis sets in, the cartilage begins to break down. As it wears away, the bones in the joint start to rub against each other (figure 1). This can cause pain, stiffness, and swelling (table 1).

What can I do to feel better?

To ease your symptoms:

  • Rest for several minutes when your pain is at its worst – But don't rest too long. That can make your muscles weak and your pain worse.
  • Lose weight (if you are overweight) – Being heavy puts extra strain on your joints.
  • Get some physical therapy and exercise – Having strong muscles takes some of the strain off of your joints. It can reduce your pain in the long run, even though it hurts to do at first.
  • Use shoe inserts, splints, canes, walkers, or any other devices that help you – These devices can help keep your joints stable or take weight off them.
  • Use hot or cold packs
  • Learn about arthritis – That way you can work with your doctor or nurse to find the things that will help you.

Can herbs, vitamins, or supplements help?

There is no strong evidence that supplements of any sort work on arthritis symptoms. That's true even for glucosamine and chondroitin, which are supplements people seem to think help with arthritis. If you want to try any supplements or herbs, check with your doctor or nurse before taking them.

What happens during the procedure?

There are lots of medicines that can help you manage the pain from osteoarthritis. These include pills as well as creams and gels that go on the skin. In some situations, doctors might suggest shots that go into the joint to relieve pain temporarily.

What about surgery?

When other treatments do not help enough, some people with osteoarthritis get surgery. For instance, some people have surgery to replace a knee or a hip. Surgeons are working on other types of surgery for arthritis, too.

Try different things until you find what works

The symptoms of osteoarthritis can be hard to handle. But don't lose hope. You might need to try different combinations of medicines, exercises, and devices to find the approach that works for you. But most people do find ways to go back to doing many of things they like to do.

Figure 1: Knee osteoarthritis

This drawing shows a normal knee joint next to a knee joint with osteoarthritis (OA). In the OA joint, the cartilage covering the ends of the bones roughens and becomes thin, while the bone underneath the cartilage grows thicker. Bony growths called "osteophytes" can form. The space between the bones also becomes narrower.

Table 1: Effects of osteoarthritis


Age when symptoms start
Usually after 40
Commonly affected body parts
Neck and lower back
Joint at the base of the thumb
Knuckles in the middle and near the tip of the fingers
Ankle joint
Knuckle at the base of the big toe
Less commonly affected body parts
Knuckles at the base of the fingers
Crackling or clicking sounds in the joints
Extra bone growth (for example, knuckles that look swollen or knobby)
Decreased range of motion
Problems with the alignment of certain joints
Tenderness to the touch

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