Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis. It most often affects hands, knees, hips or spine. 


Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis. It most often affects hands, knees, hips or spine. 

Image of person holding knee

Key points about osteoarthritis

  • Osteoarthritis is a chronic joint disease. It affects mostly middle-aged and older adults.
  • It starts with the breakdown of joint cartilage.
  • Risk factors include heredity, obesity, injury, and overuse.
  • Common symptoms include pain, stiffness, and limited movement of joints.
  • Treatment may include medicines, exercise, heat, and joint injections. Surgery may be needed to repair or replace a severely damaged joint.

What is osteoarthritis?

Arthritis is a condition that causes pain and inflammation in joints. Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common type. It's a long-term (chronic), degenerative joint disease. Degenerative means that it gets worse over time. It affects mostly middle-aged and older adults. OA causes the breakdown of joint cartilage. It can occur in any joint. But it most often affects the hands, knees, hips, or spine.

What are the symptoms of osteoarthritis?

The most common symptom of OA is pain after overuse or inactivity of a joint. Symptoms usually happen slowly over years. Symptoms can occur a bit differently in each person. They may include:

  • Joint pain
  • Joint stiffness, especially after sleep or inactivity
  • Less movement in the joint over time
  • A grinding feeling in the joint when moved, as the cartilage wears away (in later stages)

The symptoms of OA can be like other health conditions. Make sure to see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

When should I contact my doctor?

Seek care immediately if:

  • You fall and experience injury or trauma.
  • You experience intense pain.
  • You cannot move.

Call your doctor if:

  • Your symptoms get worse.
  • You have new symptoms.

How to make an appointment

If you have symptoms of osteoarthritis, schedule an appointment with a primary care physician. Once you receive a diagnosis, you'll be referred to a specialist, such as a rheumatologist or an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in arthritis, to determine the extent of your osteoarthritis, discuss your symptoms and figure out the best course of care.

If you choose “BOOK PRIMARY CARE ONLINE,” select “Family Medicine” or “Internal Medicine” to make an appointment with a primary care provider.

Osteoarthritis care at UW Medicine

Choosing UW Medicine for osteoarthritis care means choosing a team who offers truly comprehensive care, including doctors who specialize in primary care, rheumatology, sports medicine, joint replacement surgery and obesity medicine.

The UW Medicine team also has connections to different physical therapy groups; even if you need to travel a great distance to see a UW Medicine joint specialist, you can receive coordinated care in your area. Patients living with osteoarthritis often benefit from a combination of treatment options, including modifying activities and diet, physical therapy, medications, injections and sometimes surgery.

Seeking care at UW Medicine means getting access to physicians who are well-versed in many different treatment options. Many are involved in national research programs studying safer surgical interventions. These doctors also want to help you get back to your life as you knew it, with minimal pain. Whether you choose surgical or nonsurgical care, you can be confident that your care team is working with one goal in mind: to increase your quality of life.


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What causes osteoarthritis?

OA can be called primary or secondary. Primary OA has no known cause. Secondary OA is caused by another disease, infection, injury, or deformity. OA starts with the breakdown of cartilage in the joint. As the cartilage wears down, the bone ends may thicken and form bony growths. These growths are called bone spurs. Bone spurs can limit joint movement. Bits of bone and cartilage may float in the joint space. Fluid-filled cysts may form in the bone. These can also limit joint movement.

Who is at risk for osteoarthritis?

The risk factors of OA include:

  • Heredity. Some genetic problems may lead to OA. These include slight joint defects or joints that are too loose.
  • Extra weight.  Being overweight can put stress on such joints as the knees over time.
  • Injury or overuse.  Severe injury to a joint, such as the knee, can lead to OA. Injury may also result from overuse or misuse over time.

How is osteoarthritis diagnosed?

The process starts with a health history and a physical exam. You may also have X-rays. This test uses a small amount of radiation to create images of bone and other body tissues.

How is osteoarthritis treated?

Treatment will depend on your symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is. The goal of treatment is to ease joint pain and stiffness, and improve joint movement. Treatment may include:

  1. Exercise. Regular exercise may help ease pain and other symptoms. This may include stretching and strength exercises.
  2. Heat treatment. Treating the joint with heat may help ease pain.
  3. Physical and occupational therapy.  These types of therapy may help ease joint pain, improve joint flexibility, and reduce joint strain. You may use splints and other assistive devices.  
  4. Weight maintenance. Keeping a healthy weight, or losing weight if needed, may help to prevent or ease symptoms.
  5. Medicines. These may include pain relievers and anti-inflammatory medicines. You might take these by mouth as a pill. Or you may rub them on your skin in a cream.
  6. Injections of a lubricant into the joints. These liquids mimic normal joint fluid.
  7. Joint surgery. You may need surgery to repair or replace a joint that has severe damage.

Talk with your healthcare providers about the risks, benefits and possible side effects of all treatments.

What are possible complications of osteoarthritis?

Because OA causes joints to get worse over time, it can cause disability. It can cause pain and movement problems. These can make you less able to do normal daily activities and tasks.

Living with osteoarthritis

Although there is no cure for OA, it's important to help keep joints working. You can ease pain and inflammation. Work on a treatment plan with your healthcare provider. The plan may include medicine and therapy. Work on lifestyle changes that can improve your quality of life. These may include:

  • Losing weight. Extra weight puts more stress on weight-bearing joints, such as the hips and knees.
  • Exercising. Some exercises may help ease joint pain and stiffness. These include swimming, walking, low-impact aerobic exercise, and range-of-motion exercises. Stretching exercises may also help keep the joints flexible.
  • Balancing activity and rest. To reduce stress on your joints, alternate between activity and rest. This can help protect your joints and ease your symptoms.
  • Using assistive devices. Canes, crutches, and walkers can help to keep stress off certain joints and improve balance.
  • Using adaptive equipment. Reachers and grabbers allow you to extend your reach and reduce straining. Dressing aids can help you get dressed more easily.
  • Managing use of medicines. Long-term use of some anti-inflammatory medicines can lead to stomach bleeding. Work with your healthcare provider to create a plan to reduce this risk.

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