What Is Osteoarthritis?

what is osteoarthritis

What Is osteoarthritis?

Many people suffer from arthritis – including men and women, older people and even children.  There are more than 200 different types of arthritis and1 the most common type is called osteoarthritis.2,3

Osteoarthritis: a degenerative joint disease

Osteoarthritis is known as a degenerative joint disease because people with it lose function of their joints over time.4 Osteoarthritis starts with the breakdown – or degeneration – of  the joints between the body’s bones. This flexible tissue, or cartilage, provides a cushion where bones come together and prevents them from rubbing against each other when we move. Cartilage, just like any other shock absorber, can start to wear down with age and joint use, and as it does, the protective cushion between the body’s bones decreases. In osteoarthritis, this causes the bone underneath the cartilage to thicken and broaden out to form pointed bony growths called spurs.

These spurs develop near the end of the bone at the affected joint and can cause pain, numbness or tenderness.1

If the osteoarthritis worsens cartilage may actually break away from the bone, and the bones may begin to scrape against one another. So the ligaments become strained and weakened.1

While other forms of arthritis may also affect other body parts, such as the skin, osteoarthritis purely affects the joints5 and can affect many different joints, such as the hand, knee and hip.5

A direct result of osteoarthritis is joint pain.5 The pain from osteoarthritis may range from mild to severe5  and may be worse while exercising the joint, or at the end of the day.5, Osteoarthritis can also limit joint movement and flexibility,5 as affected joints cannot bend as easily or with their full range of motion. In extreme cases, osteoarthritis can even cause severe disability.

Osteoarthritis risk factors

Age is a factor for osteoarthritis.5 People usually develop osteoarthritis from their late 40s, through to old age.5 In the UK approximately 8 out of 10 people over 50 are affected by it.5  

A family history of osteoarthritis and carrying excess body weight may also raise a person’s risk of developing osteoarthritis.5 In addition, joint injuries or fractures can lead to osteoarthritis later in life as can long-term overuse of joints e.g. tennis elbow.5 In addition, osteoarthritis is more common and severe in women, especially in the knees and hands.5

Some medical conditions may also contribute to osteoarthritis. These include bleeding disorders like hemophilia, conditions that interfere with blood supply to joints, and other types of arthritis.6

Preventing osteoarthritis

Preventing osteoarthritis is not always possible because many factors contribute to its development. However, injuries to a joint may increase the risk of developing osteoarthritis to that joint in later life.5  To reduce this risk be careful not to overwork a damaged or painful joint, and try to avoid repetitive or excessive joint movements.5

Another factor that may contribute to the development of osteoarthritis is being overweight or obese.5 Excess weight places additional strain on joints, particularly on the knees and hips.5 That means maintaining a healthy body weight can help to relieve existing joint pain and prevent the development or worsening of osteoarthritis.5

Where mild-to-moderate osteoarthritis is concerned, treatment options include over-the-counter pain relievers and heat therapy to reduce pain. Medical guidelines from around the world recommend paracetamol as the pain reliever to use first to manage osteoarthritis pain.3,7-9 If you are experiencing lasting joint pain symptoms, speak to your doctor.  Your healthcare provider may also prescribe other medications to treat osteoarthritis symptoms. Physical therapy, which includes specific strengthening exercises, staying active, losing weight and maintaining a positive attitude can also help manage osteoarthritis.3

More information regarding ways to manage joint pain and exercises to strengthen the joints can be found in the articles Exercises To Strengthen Your Joints, Tips for Managing Knee Osteoarthritis and Joint Pain and Tips for Managing Hand Osteoarthritis.


  1. Arthritis Care UK, Understanding Arthritis Booklet.
  2. Arthritis Care UK, Osteoarthritis, Available at http://www.arthritiscare.org.uk/AboutArthritis/Conditions/Osteoarthritis
  3. Zhang W, et al. OARSI recommendations for the management of hip and knee osteoarthritis, Part II: OARSI evidence-based, expert consensus guidelines. Osteoarthritis Cartilage, 2008; 16: 137−162. Available at: http://www.oarsi.org/pdfs/oarsi_recommendations_for_management_of_hip
  4. European Action Towards Better Musculoskeletal Health. A Guide to the Prevention and Treatment of Musculoskeletal conditions for the Healthcare Practitioner and Policy Maker. A Bone and Joint Decade Report 2005.
  5. Arthritis Care UK, Living with Osteoarthritis Booklet. November 2009.
  6. Osteoarthritis. Medline Plus Medical Encyclopedia. U.S. National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000423.htm
  7. National Collaborating Centre for Chronic Conditions. Osteoarthritis: national clinical guideline for care and management in adults. London: Royal College of Physicians, 2008. Available at: http://www.nice.org.uk/CG059fullguideline.
  8. Jordan KM, et all. EULAR recommendations 2003: an evidence based approcah to the management of knee osteoarthritis: Report of a Task Force of the Standing Committee for International Clinical Studies Including Therapeutic Trials (ESCISIT). Rheum Dis, 2003; 62: 1145−1155. Available at: http://ard.bmjjournals.com/cgi/content/full/62/12/1145.
  9. The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. Guideline for the non-surgical management of hip and knee osteoarthritis. July 2009. Available at: http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/_files_nhmrc/file/publications/synopses/cp117-hip-knee-osteoarthritis.pdf