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Osteoarthritis

The main symptoms of osteoarthritis are pain and stiffness in your joints, which can make it difficult to move the affected joints and do certain activities.

The main symptoms of osteoarthritis are pain and stiffness in your joints, which can make it difficult to move the affected joints and do certain activities.

The symptoms may come and go in episodes, which can be related to things such as your activity levels and even the weather. In more severe cases, the symptoms can be continuous.

Other symptoms you or your doctor may notice include:

  • joint tenderness
  • increased pain and stiffness when you have not moved your joints for a while
  • joints appearing slightly larger or more 'knobbly' than usual
  • a grating or crackling sound or sensation in your joints
  • limited range of movement in your joints
  • weakness and muscle wasting (loss of muscle bulk)

Osteoarthritis can affect any joint in the body, but the most common areas affected are the knees, hips, and small joints in the hands. Often, you will only experience symptoms in one joint or a few joints at any one time.

Osteoarthritis of the knee

If you have osteoarthritis in your knees, it is likely both your knees will be affected over time, unless it has occurred as the result of an injury or another condition affecting only one knee.

Your knees may be most painful when you walk, particularly when walking up or down hills or stairs.

Sometimes, your knees may 'give way' beneath you or make it difficult to straighten your legs. You may also hear a soft, grating sound when you move the affected joint.

Osteoarthritis of the hip

Osteoarthritis in your hips often causes difficulty moving your hip joints. For example, you may find it difficult to put your shoes and socks on or to get in and out of a car.

You will also usually have pain in the groin or outside the hip. This will often be worse when you move the hip joints, although it can also affect you when you are resting or sleeping.

Osteoarthritis of the hand

Osteoarthritis often affects three main areas of your hand: the base of your thumb, the joints closest to your fingertips and the middle joints of your fingers.

Your fingers may become stiff, painful and swollen and you may develop bumps on your finger joints. But over time the pain may decrease and eventually disappear altogether, although the bumps and swelling can remain.

Your fingers may bend sideways slightly at your affected joints or you may develop painful cysts (fluid-filled lumps) on the backs of your fingers.

In some cases, you may also develop a bump at the base of your thumb where it joins your wrist. This can be painful and you may find it difficult to perform some manual tasks, such as writing, opening jars or turning keys.

When to seek medical advice

You should see your GP if you have persistent symptoms of osteoarthritis so they can try to identify the cause.

To help determine whether you have osteoarthritis, your GP will ask you about your symptoms and examine your joints.

Read more about diagnosing osteoarthritis.


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Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis occurs when there is damage in and around the joints that the body cannot fully repair. The exact causes are not known.

Osteoarthritis occurs when there is damage in and around the joints that the body can't fully repair. The exact causes are not known but there are several factors thought to increase your risk of developing the condition.

As part of normal life, your joints are exposed to a constant low level of damage. In most cases, your body will repair the damage itself. Usually, the repair process will pass unnoticed and you will not experience any symptoms.

However, in cases of osteoarthritis, the damage to the joints is not fully repaired and instead some of the cartilage (the protective surface that allows your joints to move smoothly) in the joint can be lost, bony growths can develop, and the area can become slightly inflamed (red and swollen).

These changes are what cause the typical symptoms of pain, stiffness and swelling.

Contributory factors

It is not known why problems develop in the repair process in cases of osteoarthritis, although, several factors are thought to increase your risk of developing the condition. These include:

  • Joint injury – Osteoarthritis can develop in a joint damaged by an injury or operation. Overusing your joint when it has not had enough time to heal after an injury or operation can also contribute to osteoarthritis in later life.
  • Other conditions (secondary arthritis) – Sometimes, osteoarthritis can occur in joints severely damaged by a previous or existing condition, such as rheumatoid arthritis or gout. It is possible for secondary osteoarthritis to develop many years after the initial damage to your joint.
  • Age – Osteoarthritis is not a normal part of ageing, but your risk of developing the condition does increase as you get older. Most cases affect adults who are 45 years of age or older.
  • Family history – In some cases, osteoarthritis may run in families. Genetic studies have not identified a single gene responsible, so it seems likely that many genes make small contributions.
  • Obesity – Research into the causes of osteoarthritis has shown that being obese puts excess strain on your joints, particularly those that bear most of your weight, such as your knees and hips. As a result, osteoarthritis can often be worse in obese people.

Although it is not possible to prevent osteoarthritis altogether, making some lifestyle changes to reduce your risk of joint injury and maintain a healthy weight may lower your chances of developing the condition.

Read more about preventing osteoarthritis.


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Osteoarthritis

There is no definitive test to diagnose osteoarthritis, so your GP will ask about your symptoms and examine your joints to help determine whether you have the condition.

There is no definitive test to diagnose osteoarthritis, so your GP will ask about your symptoms and examine your joints to help determine whether you have the condition.

Your GP may suspect osteoarthritis if:

  • you are 45 years of age or older
  • you have joint pain that gets worse the more you use your joints
  • you have no stiffness in your joints in the morning, or stiffness that lasts no longer than 30 minutes

If your symptoms are slightly different from those listed above, this may indicate that you have another joint condition. For example, prolonged joint stiffness in the morning can be a sign of rheumatoid arthritis.

Further tests – such as X-rays or blood tests – are not usually necessary to confirm a diagnosis of osteoarthritis, although they may be used to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms, such as rheumatoid arthritis or a fractured bone.

X-rays can also allow doctors to assess the level of damage to your joints, but this is rarely helpful as the extent of damage visible on an X-ray isn’t a good indicator of how severe your symptoms are.

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Osteoarthritis

With the right support, you can lead a healthy, active life with osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis doesn’t necessarily get worse and doesn’t always lead to disability.


Talk to others

Many people find it helpful to talk to other people who are in a similar position to them. You may find support from a group or by talking individually to someone who has osteoarthrits.

Patient organisations have local groups where you can meet other people with the same condition.

The Arthritis Care helpline is open 10am to 4pm weekdays. Call free on 0808 800 4050. You can also email them at Helplines@arthritiscare.org.uk.

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Your feelings

A diagnosis of osteoarthritis can initially be confusing and overwhelming. Like many people with a long-term health condition, those who find out they have osteoarthritis may feel anxious or depressed. But there are people you can talk to who can help, including your GP or support groups.

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Work and money

If you have severe osteoarthritis and are still working, your symptoms may interfere with your working life and may affect your ability to do your job. Arthritis Care has useful advice on how you can make simple adjustments at work to make it easier to do your job (see below).

If you have to stop work or work part time because of your arthritis, you may find it hard to cope financially. You may be entitled to one or more of the following types of financial suppor:

You may be eligible for other benefits if you have children living at home or if you have a low household income.

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Osteoarthritis

It is not possible to prevent osteoarthritis altogether. However, you may be able to minimise your risk of developing the condition by avoiding injury.

It is not possible to prevent osteoarthritis altogether. However, you may be able to minimise your risk of developing the condition by avoiding injury and staying as healthy as possible.

Look after your joints

Exercising regularly can help keep your joints healthy, but take care not to put too much stress on your joints, particularly your hips, knees and the joints in your hands.

Avoid exercise that puts strain on your joints and forces them to bear an excessive load, such as running and weight training. Instead, try exercises such as swimming and cycling, where your joints are better supported and the strain on your joints is more controlled.

Try to maintain good posture at all times, and avoid staying in the same position for too long. If you work at a desk, make sure your chair is at the correct height, and take regular breaks to move around.

Read more information about health and fitness including tips on simple exercises you can do at home.

Keep your muscles strong

Your muscles help support your joints, so having strong muscles may help your joints stay strong too.

Try to do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (such as cycling or fast walking) every week to build up your muscle strength and keep yourself generally healthy.

Exercise should be fun, so do what you enjoy, but try not to put too much strain on your joints.

Lose weight if you are overweight or obese

Being overweight or obese can increase the strain on your joints and increase your risk of developing osteoarthritis. Losing weight if you are overweight may therefore help lower your chances of developing the condition.

To find out whether or not you are overweight or obese, use the healthy weight calculator.

Read more about losing weight.

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