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Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. It causes joint pain and stiffness. It usually develops gradually, over time. Several different joints can be affected, but osteoarthritis is most frequently seen in the hands, knees, hips, feet and spine.

Osteoarthritis cannot be cured, but the condition may settle down after a number of years and there is plenty you can do to relieve your symptoms.

Download our booklet on osteoarthritis

See our factsheets on osteoarthritis of specific parts of the body

What causes osteoarthritis

There is no known cause for osteoarthritis, but it is more common among women. Osteoarthritis can develop at any age, although it occurs more frequently in older people. Injury to a joint can also trigger osteoarthritis, even many years later.

What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis develops when changes in cartilage (soft tissue that protects the bone surface) occur that affect how joints work.

  1. Cartilage becomes pitted, rough and brittle
  2. Underlying bone thickens and broadens to reduce load on cartilage
  3. Bony outgrowths form at the outer edges of the joint, making it look knobbly
  4. Synovial membrane and joint capsule thicken, and space inside the joint narrows
  5. This leads to a stiff joint, which is painful to move and sometimes inflamed

    Sometimes part of the cartilage can break away from the bone leaving the bone ends exposed. These may then rub against each other and the ligaments become strained and weakened. This causes a lot of pain and changes the shape of the joint.

    How will osteoarthritis affect me?

    Osteoarthritis is a condition that develops over time. Changes will be slow and subtle in some people, whereas in others, the pain and stiffness will gradually worsen until the disease process finishes.

    At this point, the joints will look rather knobbly, but are usually far less painful. In some cases they become pain free. You should be able to carry out most everyday tasks. 

    How is osteoarthritis treated?

    There are a number of things you can do to relieve the symptoms, and especially the pain. 
    Your doctor will prescribe you one (or more) of the following types of drugs:

    • analgesics (painkillers) which relieve pain
    • non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) which reduce inflammation and, in turn, pain
    • steroids, which also reduce inflammation, and can be directly injected into a joint for fast relief

    Your doctor may refer you to an orthopaedic surgeon if you have severe arthritis affecting weight-bearing joints, such as the knees and hips. If you do have your joints replaced they should give you no problems for 10-15 years or longer if you treat them carefully.

    How can I help myself with osteoarthritis

    Some of the following may help to relieve pain and keep you mobile:

    • doing exercises to strengthen your muscles will reduce pain and stress on your joints – a physiotherapist can help with this
    • massaging painful joints and muscles
    • losing weight if you are overweight to reduce strain on your weight-bearing joints
    • attending relaxation classes
    • trying complementary therapies such as acupuncture and aromatherapy

    Arthritis Care run a range of self-management programmes designed to teach you skills to live life to the full and to help you get the most out of your healthcare team. The courses also allow you to meet other people with your condition.

    The Arthritis Care Helpline is available to answer any specific questions you may have on all aspects of arthritis.

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    Inspire magazine Summer edition 2015

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