Affecting an estimated 27 million Americans, osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis. This chronic condition causes the cartilage in the joints to break down and wear away, gradually leaving joints with less of a shock-absorbing cushion. Joints in the knees, hips and lower back are most often affected by this degenerative disease, although damage also can occur in the fingers, thumbs, neck and big toes. Osteoarthritis generally worsens over time, leading to pain, swelling and problems moving the diseased joints. People of any age can develop osteoarthritis, but the condition is more prevalent in those over age 65, especially women.

Causes of Osteoarthritis

Advancing age is the leading cause of osteoarthritis, but other factors may contribute to a person’s chance of developing it. Heredity may play a part, as some genetic traits can increase the likelihood of joint deterioration. Obesity has also been linked to osteoarthritis, both because extra weight wears down the cartilage more quickly and because excess fat produces chemicals that can cause joint inflammation. Joint overuse and injury have been linked to an increased risk for osteoarthritis as well. Bone and joint disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and certain metabolic disorders also can contribute to osteoarthritis development.

Osteoarthritis Diagnosis

Diagnosing osteoarthritis typically begins with a comprehensive review of the patient’s personal medical history. The doctor will ask for a description of the symptoms, including when they began and the severity and location of the pain. A physical exam is next, in which the doctor will examine the affected joints and test their range of movement. X-rays or an MRI may be ordered to help confirm the diagnosis. In some cases, the doctor uses a needle to draw joint fluid, which is then analyzed to rule out other medical conditions.

Treatment for Osteoarthritis

No cure has yet been identified for osteoarthritis, but symptoms can be managed effectively. Treatment often involves medication to relieve pain and ease inflammation. Physical or occupational therapy is used in some cases, and exercise and weight loss can help alleviate symptoms. Some people with function and mobility issues may need to use shoe inserts, canes, walkers or other supportive devices. Joint injections with cortisone or hyluronan are also used to manage symptoms. When other types of treatment are not effective, joint replacement surgery may be advised.

Read our Non-Operative Treatment Guide for Osteoarthritis.