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What is Osteoarthritis?

Michael Pollick
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis among Americans, should not be confused with its cousin rheumatoid arthritis. Both forms of arthritis create pain in the joints, but osteoarthritis is not an inflammation. Some physicians may call it degenerative joint disease or osteoarthrosis, which indicates a gradual degeneration of joint tissue over time. Rheumatoid arthritis can flare up suddenly, but osteoarthritis generally doesn't appear until middle age or following trauma to a joint.

If you've ever heard a former athlete refer to a 'trick knee' or an elderly relative complain of joint pain on rainy days, they are most likely referring to osteoarthritis. As the body ages, the cartilage and fluid sacs between joints begin to disintegrate. Once this protection and cushioning is gone, the bones often begin to rub together. This in turn causes bones to form growths called spurs, which can contribute even more pain and instability to the joint.

Osteoarthritis does not have one specific cause, but there are a number of factors which can lead to its formation. Obesity can cause tremendous pressure on the hips, knees and ankle bones. These also happen to be three of the most common sites for osteoarthritis. There is also some evidence that heredity and genetics play a role in the development or non-development of osteoarthritis later in life. Sports injuries involving joints can also lead to early development of osteoarthritis.

There is no specific cure for osteoarthritis, but there are a variety of pain management options. Many sufferers find temporary relief through the use of non-steroidal analgesics like Osteo Bi-Flex. Athletes often receive injections of cortisone to create a temporary cushion between damaged joints. Heat treatments and medicated sportscremes such as Myoflex and BenGay can also provide some relief from the stiffness. In more serious cases of osteoarthritis, the entire joint may be replaced with an artificial one. This is most commonly done with hip and knee joints.

Osteoarthritis does not affect every weight-bearing joint in the body, contrary to popular thought. Overuse of joints such as the elbows or wrists will not automatically lead to osteoarthritis in later life, although these areas are prone to tendinitis, which may feel similar to arthritis in many ways.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to The Health Board, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By bagley79 — On Oct 22, 2011

I work in an assisted living center, and every day I hear about the osteoarthritis pain many people are suffering from.

This seems like it is something that affects so many elderly people. I don't think it would be quite so bad if this is the only thing they had wrong, but many of them have a lot of other issues going on too.

There is also a big range in how it affects people. Some have severe osteoarthritis and have a hard time getting around without assistance. For others it may just affect their hands, knees and hips.

I would say at least 80% of the people I work with complain about their arthritis on a regular basis. It makes we wonder if there is a way I can prevent getting this as I get older.

I try to keep my weight down and eat healthy, but don't know if that will make a difference when it comes to arthritis or not.

By SarahSon — On Oct 21, 2011

My husband has worked construction for most of his career and his knees are about shot. The doctor told him because of all the osteoarthritis in his knees, he will eventually have to have both of them replaced.

He is trying to put this off as long as possible. They have not locked up on him yet, so he keeps going. He has a couple other options he can try before surgery, but they are only temporary fixes.

If the pain gets too bad, he can receive a cortisone shot. This brings immediate relief for awhile, but never lasts long enough.

They can also do some surgery with a scope which he would not have nearly the long recovery time as a complete replacement would. This would help ease the pain for a bit longer, but he would still need to have them replaced.

The thought of being laid up for a few months is not something he looks forward to. The pain is getting worse though, and I don't think he will be able to keep putting it off much longer.

By Mykol — On Oct 20, 2011

My dad complains of his arthritis a lot and it has quite an impact on his daily living. It is frustrating for him when he can't do everything he has enjoyed in the past.

He loves to play the piano, and so many times his fingers are so stiff that he can hardly play. His osteoarthritis treatment mainly consists of over the counter medication to help with the pain and stiffness, but for the most part, he has learned to live with it.

I broke my arm once when skiing and have a small taste of what he must feel like all over his body. My arm has never been the same since, and on cold, damp days I can really feel it in my joints.

So far I just have arthritis in this one area, and can imagine how it must feel if your whole body felt this way.

By elfi64 — On Apr 11, 2008

There are four levels of osteoarthritis, depending on how much of cartilage has worn out. In stage four there is no space between bones, no cartilage left, one bone sits on the top of the other. Ouch that hurts. Usually this occurs in hip, knee and ankle joints.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to The Health Board, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
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