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Osteoarthritis

9-minute read

Key facts

  • Osteoarthritis is a long-term condition that causes joint pain and reduced movement.
  • It can affect any joint in the body, but mostly occurs in the knees, hips, fingers and big toe.
  • Symptoms include joint pain and stiffness, clicking noises, and reduced flexibility in a joint.
  • Excess weight, a previous injury and repeated joint movements increase the risk of osteoarthritis.
  • Regular exercise, healthy eating, special devices and pain management can help to treat symptoms.

What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a long-term condition where the joints in your body become inflamed and damaged. Over time, the bones in the joint rub together, causing pain, swelling, stiffness and reduced movement. This can make it harder to walk, climb stairs or do other daily activities.

The condition can affect any joint in the body, but mostly it affects the knees, hips, finger joints and big toe. While it can worsen over time, osteoarthritis can be managed effectively.

Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis in Australia. It is sometimes confused with osteoporosis, a different condition where the bones become weak, fragile and are more likely to break.

Illustration of a health join in comparison with osteoarthritis
Osteoarthritis is a chronic condition where the joints in your body become inflamed and damaged, causing pain, swelling, stiffness and reduced movement.

What are the symptoms of osteoarthritis?

The main symptoms of osteoarthritis are:

  • joint pain and stiffness
  • problems with moving joints
  • clicking noises when moving a joint
  • grating sensations when moving a joint
  • less joint flexibility than before

You may only notice symptoms in your joints after doing an activity such as walking, climbing stairs or opening a jar. Some people have mild symptoms, while others may experience more severe, ongoing symptoms.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the joint pain and swelling Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

How common is osteoarthritis?

Women are more likely to develop osteoarthritis than men. Australian studies show that about 1 in 10 women report having the condition, compared with about 1 in 16 men.

Osteoarthritis can develop at any age, but it is more common in people aged over 40 years or in those who have previously injured a joint. One in 5 Australians over the age of 45, and one in 3 over 75 years have osteoarthritis.

What causes osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis does not have a specific, single cause. However, experts note that certain things put you more at risk of developing osteoarthritis in some joints, including:

  • being overweight (which puts your knees and hips at greater risk)
  • having a previous injury to the joint, such as a dislocation or a fracture (knees, hips, hands)
  • frequent kneeling, climbing and squatting (knees)
  • jobs that involve heavy lifting (hips)
  • repetitive use of the hands (hands)

You may also be more likely to develop the condition if your family has a history of osteoarthritis.

When should I see my doctor?

Check with your doctor or health professional if you feel pain in your joints or experience other symptoms of osteoarthritis. If you have any concerns about osteoarthritis, or other health issues, they can suggest ways to manage your arthritis and refer you to a specialist if needed.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

How is osteoarthritis diagnosed?

There is no specific test for osteoarthritis. Your doctor will confirm or rule out osteoarthritis based on your symptoms and a physical examination. Some signs they may look for are:

  • swelling around the joints in your body
  • damage to joint cartilage — cartilage is the smooth, cushion-like surface that covers the ends of your bones to allow them to move smoothly
  • spurs — extra bone growing around the edge of a joint
  • weakness in the ligaments and tendons — the connective tissue that holds your joints together or attaches muscles to bones

Your doctor may refer you for an x-ray to look for narrowing and changes in the shape of your joints. A blood test may help to rule out other types of arthritis (e.g. rheumatoid arthritis).

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How is osteoarthritis managed?

There is no cure for osteoarthritis, but most people with osteoarthritis can manage their symptoms, continue with daily activities and live healthy and enjoyable lives. Be careful of any products or treatments that claim to cure osteoarthritis completely — your doctor will help to find the right treatment for you.

Regular exercise

Researchers have found that regular exercise is one of the most effective treatments for managing osteoarthritis. Not only does it keep your joints and muscles healthy and flexible, physical activity helps to prevent other health problems as well.

In general, your exercise should include a mix of:

  • flexibility — exercises like muscle stretches and yoga can help maintain or improve your joint and muscle movements
  • muscle strengthening — exercises with weights and resistance bands improve your muscle strength, which takes pressure off sore joints, strengthens bones and improves balance
  • fitness — exercises like brisk walking and cycling improve the health of your heart and lungs

Choose activities that you enjoy and are convenient for you to do. Remember that activities such as gardening, looking after pets and taking the stairs instead of the lift all count as exercise.

Healthy eating

Extra body weight increases stress on many joints — especially the knees, hips and lower back. If you are overweight, losing weight can help decrease pain and limit further damage to your joints. While there is no diet that will cure osteoarthritis, a balanced diet helps to keep you healthy and prevent other problems.

Watch out in particular for harmful dietary fats that are found in red meat, poultry and full-fat dairy products. Too much of these increases unhealthy LDL-cholesterol, which has been linked with increased cartilage damage in people with osteoarthritis. Instead, opt for healthier fats found in vegetable oils, avocados, nuts and seeds, fish and fish oil supplements.

Special devices and footwear

Walking sticks can help to reduce the load on your knees and reduce pain when moving about. Other ways to improve symptoms of osteoarthritis include taping the joint, wearing braces, or using shoe insoles (orthoses) that improve your body alignment when standing and walking. Check with your physiotherapist for advice about using aids or supports.

Pain management

It can be helpful to understand how your osteoarthritis pain works and your own response to it. Pain coaching, cognitive behaviour therapy or mindfulness may be effective in helping to prevent pain from disrupting your life.

Oral non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs) can be effective in reducing osteoarthritis pain. Check with your doctor or pharmacist about any potential side effects, such as stomach ulcers and bleeding. If tablets are not suitable, NSAIDs also come in cream or gel formulas, though these are generally only helpful for knee osteoarthritis.

Ask your doctor or pharmacist about the best pain relief to use for your type of osteoarthritis since some medicines are only effective for certain joints, are not supported by clinical evidence, or have the risk of serious side effects.

Surgery

If your symptoms can’t be managed in other ways, your doctor may refer you to an orthopaedic surgeon. There are several different types of surgery for osteoarthritis.

Arthrodesis involves joining (fusing) two bones into position to prevent pain, most commonly in ankles, wrists, fingers or thumbs.

Arthroplasty (or joint replacement) involves removing a joint and replacing it with metal, ceramic or plastic parts. It can be done on knees, hips, shoulders, elbows, fingers, ankles, toes and even the spine.

Osteotomy involves adding or removing a small section of bone either above or below your knee joint to help straighten the joint. It is usually done on knees, and occasionally hips.

Arthroscopy (or keyhole surgery) involves inserting an arthroscope with a small camera into the joint to see directly into the area, so the surgeon can remove or repair any damaged cartilage. It is not recommended for people with knee osteoarthritis unless the knee locks.

Can osteoarthritis be prevented?

You can reduce your risk of developing osteoarthritis by avoiding significant damage or overuse of a joint. Maintaining a healthy weight will make osteoarthritis easier to manage if it develops in a weight-bearing joint, such as the knees, hips or feet.

Be careful of any product or treatment that claims to prevent osteoarthritis completely — check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking any medication or supplement.

Are there complications of osteoarthritis?

For many people, living with osteoarthritis will not cause major problems. However, complications that may arise from severe osteoarthritis include:

  • deformity — due to swelling of the joint
  • poor sleep — due to pain
  • reduced ability to exercise
  • restrictions performing daily tasks (e.g. difficulty rising from a chair or climbing stairs)

As osteoarthritis is a long-term condition, you may feel anxious, frustrated or upset about how it is affecting your life. Talk with your doctor or a friend you trust if you need help and support.

Other questions you might have

If you have questions about COVID-19 and managing osteoarthritis, check out this FAQ page from Arthritis Australia.

Resources and support

For more information and support, try these resources:

  • Arthritis Australia’s website has information about osteoarthritis and advice on living with arthritis in general.
  • Call Arthritis Australia on 1800 011 041 to see what activities are available in your state or territory.
  • MyJointPain is a free app to help you track your osteoarthritis and get long-term relief.

Other languages

Do you prefer other languages than English? These websites offer translated information about osteoarthritis:

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: May 2020


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