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What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common chronic (long-lasting) joint condition. A joint is where two bones come together. The ends of these bones are covered with a protective tissue called cartilage. With OA, this cartilage breaks down, causing the bones within the joint to rub together. This can cause pain, stiffness, and other symptoms. OA occurs most often in older people, although it can occur in adults of any age. OA is also called degenerative joint disease, degenerative arthritis, and wear-and-tear arthritis. A leading cause of disability, OA affects more than 30 million men and women trusted Source in the United States. Here’s everything you need to know about OA, from treatment to prevention, and more.

Osteoarthritis causes

OA is caused by joint damage. This damage can accumulate over time, which is why age is one of the main causes of joint damage leading to osteoarthritis. The older you are, the more wear and tear you’ve had on your joints.

Other causes of joint damage include past injury, such as:
  • Torn cartilage
  • Dislocated joints
  • Ligament injuries
  • They also include joint malformation, obesity, and poor posture. Certain risk factors, such as family history and gender, increase your risk of osteoarthritis. Check out the most common causes of OA.
Osteoarthritis and cartilage

Cartilage is a tough, rubbery substance that’s flexible and softer than bone. Its job is to protect the ends of bones within a joint and allow them to move easily against each other.
When cartilage breaks down, these bone surfaces become pitted and rough. This can cause pain within the joint, and irritation in surrounding tissues. Damaged cartilage can’t repair itself. This is because cartilage doesn’t contain any blood vessels.
When the cartilage wears away completely, the cushioning buffer that it provides disappears, allowing for bone-on-bone contact. This can cause intense pain and other symptoms associated with OA. Here’s what else you need to know about cartilage, joints, and osteoarthritis.

Osteoarthritis symptoms

OA can occur in any joint. However, the most commonly affected areas of the body include the:

  • Hands
  • Fingertips
  • Knees
  • Hips
  • Spine, typically at the neck or lower back
The most common symptoms of osteoarthritis include:
  • Pain
  • Tenderness (discomfort when pressing on the area with your fingers)
  • Stiffness
  • Inflammation
  • As OA becomes more advanced, the pain associated with it may become more intense. Over time, swelling in the joint and surrounding area may also occur. Recognizing the early symptoms of OA can help you to better manage the condition.
At-home treatments and lifestyle changes for OA include:

Physical activity strengthens the muscles around your joints and may help relieve stiffness. Aim for at least 20 to 30 minutes of physical movement, at least every other day. Choose gentle, low-impact activities, such as walking or swimming. Tai chi and yoga can also improve joint flexibility and help with pain management.
Weight loss
Being overweight can put a strain on your joints and cause pain. Shedding excess pounds helps relieve this pressure and reduces pain. A healthy weight can also lower your risk of other health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease.
Adequate sleep
Resting your muscles can reduce swelling and inflammation. Be kind to yourself and don’t overdo it. Getting enough sleep at night can also help you to manage pain more effectively.
Heat and cold therapy
You can experiment with heat or cold therapy to relieve muscle pain and stiffness. Apply a cold or hot compress to sore joints for 15 to 20 minutes several times a day.
These practices can help take the edge off of your symptoms and improve your quality of life. For a full list of OA treatments, learn more here.
Exercises for osteoarthritis
Gentle stretching exercises can be very helpful for people with OA, especially if you have stiffness or pain in your knees, hips, or back. Stretching can help improve mobility and range of motion.
As with any exercise plan, check with your doctor before beginning, to make sure it’s the right course of action for you.