What Is Arthritis?

Older adult sitting clasped hands and smiling

When people talk about having arthritis, they are usually talking about problems with their joints. The problems can affect any joint in the body, including:

  • Hands.
  • Knees.
  • Hips.
  • Neck.
  • Lower back.

There are many different types of arthritis with different causes and treatments. This webpage is going to give you information and tips on living with osteoarthritis (OA). It is the most common type of arthritis and is more common in older people.

OA can be painful, but there are things you can do to feel better. By learning about the disease and taking part in your care, you can learn to manage the symptoms to help you live an active lifestyle.

For more information about OA and other types of arthritis, please browse the NIAMS Health Topics.

What Are the Symptoms of Osteoarthritis?

When you have OA, you may feel:

  • Pain when using the joint.
  • Joint stiffness, usually lasting less than 30 minutes.
  • Swelling in and around the joint.
  • Changes in how you can move the joint.
  • Like the joint is loose or unstable.

Pain and other joint symptoms may lead you to feel tired, have problems sleeping, and feel depressed.

Remember, there are things you can do to help improve your joint pain and stiffness. It is important to visit your doctor, who can suggest and prescribe treatments that may lessen your pain and help you feel better. Be sure to keep track of your symptoms so your doctor has a full picture of what you are feeling. Also, bring a list of medications and supplements you take to your doctor appointment. Download the PDF at the top of this page for a printable booklet that includes tools such as a medication tracker, symptom tracker, and daily activity tracker.

How Do Doctors Recognize Osteoarthritis?

There is no one test that shows if you have OA. Your doctor may:

  • Ask about your medical and family history.
  • Do a physical exam to check your general health, reflexes, and problem joints.
  • Get images of your joints by sending you for x-rays or MRIs.
  • Order blood tests and other screenings to make sure there are no other causes of your symptoms, such as an infection.
Older adult and health care provider seated at a table and having a discussion

How Do Doctors Treat Osteoarthritis?

The goals of your treatment may include:

  • Improve how the joint works.
  • Stop your joint problems from getting worse.
  • Help you improve or keep your quality of life.

You may see several types of doctors for your OA, including your family doctor, a rheumatologist, or other specialists who can work with you to treat your joint problems.

Treating OA usually includes:

  • Exercising, which can lower joint pain and stiffness and increase flexibility and muscle strength. Remember to start any exercise program slowly after talking to your doctor.
  • Managing your weight to help lower the stress on joints. If you are overweight or obese, losing weight can help to lower pain, prevent more injury, and improve movement in your joints. This can be especially helpful for your knees or hips.
  • Using braces or other orthotics that your doctor prescribes and that are fitted by a health care professional.

Some people may need medications to help manage the symptoms of OA. Your doctor may recommend surgery if your joint problems are severe and all other treatments tried have not helped. However, surgery is not right for everyone, and your doctor will help you decide if it’s best for you.

You may hear or read about other types of therapies to help treat your OA. For example:

  • Massage can increase blood flow and bring warmth to the area.
  • Acupuncture may help relieve pain. Doctors believe that the needles help release natural, pain-relieving chemicals made by the nervous system.

Before taking any medicines or using other therapies, talk to your doctor.

Older couple standing next to a health care provider and shaking hands

How to Help Manage Osteoarthritis

Older adult and health care provider looking at documents together

There are many things you can do to help manage and live with OA. Start by working with your doctor to set up a treatment plan that works for you.

Learning as much as you can about OA from reliable sources can help, too. Some people find it helpful to take a class or talk with a community health worker to learn about the disease and how to manage the symptoms to allow you to live an active lifestyle.

You may feel sadness or frustration when living with osteoarthritis. But keep in mind, many people with this disease live full lives. You may find it helpful to look for a support group, online or in your community. Support groups can help you connect with others living with OA, and offer tips on how to manage your joint problems.

For a list of possible organizations to contact, see the “Other Resources” section below.

Two people wearing exercise clothing standing next to each other in a park and stretching

Here are some other tips that may help:

  • Try using heat and cold therapies because they can lower joint pain. Heat therapy can improve blood flow. Cold therapy can numb nerves around the painful joint and help with swelling.
  • Use a cane or walker when you need it. They can help you move around safely, provide stability, and lower pain.
  • If you have arthritis in your hands, you may find it helpful to use devices such as jar openers to help you grip.
  • Try to avoid repeated motions, such as frequent bending.
  • Shoe inserts or braces can help support your joint and help lower pain and pressure on the area. This can be helpful when you stand or walk
  • Exercise is important to help you keep, or improve, your daily living skills. Remember to talk to your doctor before beginning any new exercises and start slowly. It may take some time for you to adjust to the new activity. Some exercise choices may include:
    • Walking.
    • Low-impact aerobics in person or video classes.
    • Balance exercises, such as tai chi or yoga.
    • Use of weights or exercise bands to strengthen muscles.
    • Swimming or water aerobics.

Research Supported by NIH/NIAMS

Scientists supported by the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), are working to find out what causes OA and other forms of arthritis and how they can best be treated.

Researchers are looking at these issues:

  • Risk factors for different types of arthritis.
  • Treatment options, and how to prevent these diseases, and different ways of testing for them.
  • Types of testing methods that help doctors look at joints more closely.

In addition, studies continue to:

  • Look at how our genes that relate to bones and joints may be affected by the world around us.
  • Find new ways to measure what is happening inside the body, which could help researchers understand how different types of arthritis start and progress.
  • Study if weight loss and exercise help manage the symptoms and outcomes in people with arthritis of the knee.
  • Compare how different factors may influence pain relief in people with arthritis.

Clinical Trials: You Could Make a Difference!

A clinical trial is a type of research study that involves people who volunteer to take part in it. Most clinical trials test a new treatment for a health problem, like a new drug or diet. Clinical trials help doctors learn if a new treatment is better, the same, or worse than standard care. Other clinical trials test ways to prevent a disease or find it early.

Talk to your doctor about whether a clinical trial would be right for you. When you volunteer to take part in clinical research, you help doctors and researchers learn more about arthritis.

Also, when you participate in a study, you may have the chance to receive the newest treatment and have additional care from the clinical trial staff.

To learn more about the basics of participating in a clinical trial, visit the website NIH Clinical Research Trials and You.

At that website you will find:

  • Information on risks and potential benefits.
  • Firsthand stories from clinical trial volunteers.
  • Explanations from researchers.
  • Instructions for finding a clinical trial at the NIH or somewhere else in the country.

To hear from people who have taken part in clinical studies led by NIAMS researchers, watch these videos.

Where Can I Find More Information About Osteoarthritis?

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

National Institutes of Health 1 AMS Circle
Bethesda, MD 20892-3675
Phone: 301-495-4484
Toll free: 877-22-NIAMS (226-4267). For telecommunications support, dial 711
Fax: 301-718-6366
Email: NIAMSinfo@mail.nih.gov
Website: niams.nih.gov

Find more information about osteoarthritis.

If you need more information about available resources in your language or another language, please visit our website or contact the NIAMS Information Clearinghouse.

Other Resources

U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Toll free: 888-INFO-FDA (888-463-6332)

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

National Institute on Aging

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons

American College of Rheumatology

American Physical Therapy Association

Arthritis Foundation


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