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Overview of osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is a condition that causes your joints to become painful and stiff. It's the most common type of arthritis. It mainly affects people over the age of 40 but it can develop at any age.

Osteoarthritis can affect any joint in your body but it usually affects large moveable joints such as your hips, knees and lower back. It can also affect your hands, particularly the base of your thumb and the end joints of your fingers, and your feet.

In healthy joints, cartilage (a shiny gristly material) acts as a shock absorber and provides a smooth surface between the bones to allow easy movement. When a joint develops osteoarthritis, the cartilage breaks down causing pain, swelling and problems moving the joint.

We don’t know exactly what causes osteoarthritis but several things are thought to increase your risk of developing it, including:

Symptoms of osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis progresses slowly and develops over many years. The most common symptoms of osteoarthritis are:

Some people also have the following symptoms:

Diagnosing osteoarthritis

Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and may examine you. They'll usually want to check what range of movement you have in your joints.

There are no specific blood tests for osteoarthritis. Your doctor will normally diagnose it based on your symptoms and their examination. An X-ray isn't needed to diagnose osteoarthritis.

If your doctor suspects you might have a different condition, such as a form of rheumatoid arthritis, you may need to have some extra tests. Your doctor will arrange any extra tests that you need.

Treating osteoarthritis

There's no cure for osteoarthritis but there are several lifestyle measures and treatments that can help you manage your symptoms and prevent joint changes from getting worse.

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On the next page: Self-care for osteoarthritis

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed March 2021.

Page reference: 449794

Review key: HIOST-35589