Arthritis

Updated November 2010

What Is Osteoarthritis?
Fast Facts: An Easy-to-Read Series of Publications for the Public

Osteoarthritis is a joint disease that mostly affects cartilage. Cartilage is the slippery tissue that covers the ends of bones in a joint. Healthy cartilage allows bones to glide over each other. It also helps absorb shock of movement. In osteoarthritis, the top layer of cartilage breaks down and wears away. This allows bones under the cartilage to rub together. The rubbing causes pain, swelling, and loss of motion of the joint. Over time, the joint may lose its normal shape. Also, bone spurs may grow on the edges of the joint. Bits of bone or cartilage can break off and float inside the joint space, which causes more pain and damage.

People with osteoarthritis often have joint pain and reduced motion. Unlike some other forms of arthritis, osteoarthritis affects only joints and not internal organs. Rheumatoid arthritis - the second most common form of arthritis - affects other parts of the body besides the joints. Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis.

Who Gets Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis occurs most often in older people. Younger people sometimes get osteoarthritis primarily from joint injuries.

What Causes Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis usually happens gradually over time. Some risk factors that might lead to it include:

  • Being overweight
  • Getting older
  • Joint injury
  • Joints that are not properly formed
  • A genetic defect in joint cartilage
  • Stresses on the joints from certain jobs and playing sports.

How Is Osteoarthritis Diagnosed?

Osteoarthritis can occur in any joint. It occurs most often in the hands, knees, hips, and spine.

Warning signs of osteoarthritis are:

  • Stiffness in a joint after getting out of bed or sitting for a long time
  • Swelling or tenderness in one or more joints
  • A crunching feeling or the sound of bone rubbing on bone.

No single test can diagnose osteoarthritis. Most doctors use several methods to diagnose the disease and rule out other problems:

  • Medical history
  • Physical exam
  • X rays
  • Other tests such as blood tests or exams of the fluid in the joints.

How Is Osteoarthritis Treated?

Doctors often combine treatments to fit a patient's needs, lifestyle, and health. Osteoarthritis treatment has four main goals:

  • Improve joint function
  • Keep a healthy body weight
  • Control pain
  • Achieve a healthy lifestyle.

Osteoarthritis treatment plans can involve:

  • Exercise
  • Weight control
  • Rest and joint care
  • Nondrug pain relief techniques to control pain
  • Medicines
  • Complementary and alternative therapies
  • Surgery.

How Can Self-Care and a "Good-Health Attitude" Help?

Three kinds of programs help people learn about osteoarthritis and self-care and improve their good-health attitude:

  • Patient education programs
  • Arthritis self-management programs
  • Arthritis support groups.

These programs teach people about osteoarthritis and its treatments. They also have clear and long-lasting benefits. People in these programs learn to:

  • Exercise and relax
  • Talk with their doctor or other health care providers
  • Solve problems.

People with osteoarthritis find that self-management programs help them:

  • Understand the disease
  • Reduce pain while staying active
  • Cope with their body, mind, and emotions
  • Have more control over the disease
  • Live an active, independent life.

People with a good-health attitude:

  • Focus on what they can do, not what they can't do
  • Focus on their strengths, not their weaknesses
  • Break down activities into small tasks that are easy to manage
  • Build fitness and healthy eating into their daily routines
  • Develop ways to lower and manage stress
  • Balance rest with activity
  • Develop a support system of family, friends, and health care providers.

What Research Is Being Done on Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is not simply a disease of "wear and tear" that happens in joints as people get older. There is more to the disease than aging alone. Researchers are studying:

  • Tools to detect osteoarthritis earlier
  • Genes
  • Tissue engineering—special ways to grow cartilage to replace damaged cartilage
  • A wide range of treatment strategies
  • Medicines to prevent, slow down, or reverse joint damage
  • Complementary and alternative therapies
  • Vitamins and other supplements
  • Education to help people manage their osteoarthritis better
  • Exercise and weight loss as ways to improve mobility and decrease pain.

For More Information on Osteoarthritis and Other Related Conditions:

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS)
Information Clearinghouse
National Institutes of Health

1 AMS Circle
Bethesda,  MD 20892-0001
Phone: 301-495-4484
Toll Free: 877-22-NIAMS (877-226-4267)
TTY: 301-565-2966
Fax: 301-718-6366
Email: NIAMSinfo@mail.nih.gov
Website: http://www.niams.nih.gov

The information in this fact sheet was summarized in easy-to-read format from information in a more detailed NIAMS publication. To order the Osteoarthritis: Handout on Health full-text version, please contact NIAMS using the contact information above. To view the complete text or to order online, visit http://www.niams.nih.gov.

For Your Information

This publication contains information about medications used to treat the health condition discussed here. When this publication was developed, we included the most up-to-date (accurate) information available. Occasionally, new information on medication is released.

For updates and for any questions about any medications you are taking, please contact

U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Toll Free: 888INFOFDA (8884636332)
Website: http://www.fda.gov

For additional information on specific medications, visit Drugs@FDA at www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cder/drugsatfda. Drugs@FDA is a searchable catalog of FDA-approved drug products.

This publication is not copyrighted. Readers are encouraged to duplicate and distribute as many copies as needed.

Additional copies of this publication are available from:

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS)
Information Clearinghouse
National Institutes of Health

1 AMS Circle
Bethesda,  MD 20892-0001
Phone: 301-495-4484
Toll Free: 877-22-NIAMS (877-226-4267)
TTY: 301-565-2966
Fax: 301-718-6366
Email: NIAMSinfo@mail.nih.gov
Website: http://www.niams.nih.gov

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