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Osteoarthritis is the breakdown of cartilage in the joints. This is followed by chronic inflammation of the joint lining. Healthy cartilage is a cushion between the bones in a joint. Osteoarthritis usually affects the hands, feet, spine, hips, and knees. People with osteoarthritis usually have joint pain and limited movement of the affected joint.

Joints Affected by Osteoarthritis

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The exact cause is unclear.


Factors that may increase your chance of developing osteoarthritis include:


Osteoarthritis may cause:

  • Mild-to-severe pain in a joint, especially after overuse or long periods of inactivity, such as sitting for a long time
  • Creaking or grating sound in the joint
  • Swelling, stiffness, limited movement of the joint, especially in the morning
  • Deformity of the joint


Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.

Tests may include:

  • X-ray to see internal body structures
  • CT scan to look at the extent of the arthritis
  • Arthrocentesis to rule out other causes of arthritis
  • Blood tests to rule out other causes of arthritis


There is no treatment that stops cartilage loss or repairs damaged cartilage or bones of the joint. When cartilage wears away, bone on bone friction causes also pain and inflammation. The goal of treatment is to reduce joint pain and inflammation, and to improve joint function.

Options may include:

  • Acetaminophen
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Opiates and opiate-like medications
  • Topical pain medications that are applied to the skin
  • Antidepressants
  • Viscosupplementation injection
  • Corticosteroid injection
Dietary Supplements

Glucosamine and chondroitin are two commonly used supplements. But, research has shown that these are not beneficial for most people with osteoarthritis. Talk with your doctor before taking any herbs or supplements.

Alternative Treatments

Some doctors report that acupuncture has been successful in reducing the pain of osteoarthritis. However, the evidence is not consistent.

While more studies are needed, balneotherapy (hot water therapy), relaxation therapy, exercise, yoga, and tai chi may be helpful.

Mechanical Aids

Shoes with shock-absorbing in soles may provide some relief while you are doing daily activities or exercising. Splints or braces help to properly align joints and distribute weight. Knee and wrist joints may benefit from elastic supports. Canes , crutches , walkers , and orthopedic shoes can help with advanced osteoarthritis in the lower body.

Weight Reduction

Losing weight can lessen the stress on joints affected by osteoarthritis. The more weight lost, the greater the benefit.

Exercise and Physical Therapy

Strengthening the muscles supporting an arthritic joint (particularly the knee, lower back, and neck) may decrease pain and absorb energy around the joint. For example, if you have arthritis in the knee, exercise and strength training can also help improve knee function.

Swimming and water aerobics are good options. They do not put stress on the joint.

Another option is transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). With TENS, you are connected to a machine. The machine sends electrical signals through the skin to nerves. This type of therapy may decrease pain in some people.

Assistive Devices

If you are having difficulty getting around due to arthritis pain, your doctor might recommend that you install handrails and grips throughout your home. These are useful in the bathroom and shower. You may need elevated seats, including toilet seats, if you're having difficulty rising after sitting.

Heat and Ice

Applying heat with hot water bottles, warm soaks, paraffin, or heating pads helps joints and muscles move more easily. It can also lessen pain. Using ice packs after activity can also help.

Manual Therapy

If you have knee osteoarthritis, manual therapy, including massage therapy and manipulation, may be helpful.


Surgery can:

  • Reposition bones to redistribute stress on the joint
  • Replace joints
  • Remove loose pieces of bone or cartilage from joints


To help reduce your chance of developing osteoarthritis, take these steps:

  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Do regular, gentle exercise, such as walking, stretching, swimming or yoga
  • Avoid repetitive motions and risky activities that may contribute to joint injury, especially after age 40
  • With advancing age, certain activities may have to be stopped or modified; it is important to continue to be active, so find an activity that suits you


Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.

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