Everything you need to know about osteoarthritis

17 April 2023

Osteoarthritis is a common disease that causes pain and swelling and can affect any joint in the body.

However, it's most likely to affect weight-bearing joints like your knees and hips or particularly hard-working joints such as those in your hands.

Here's everything you need to know about the condition, including information on the main symptoms and the treatments available.

What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis - also sometimes known as 'wear and tear' arthritis - is a degenerative disease caused by the deterioration of the protective cartilage that cushions the ends of the bones in your joints.

As the cartilage breaks down, you experience pain, swelling, and may start to find it hard to move your joints. Bony growths can also develop, leading to more inflammation and discomfort.

The good news is that osteoarthritis tends to develop slowly and only becomes very common in people over the age of 45.

Among younger people, it mainly affects those who have injuries that impact their joints, such as a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).

However, while some people only experience mild symptoms even after several years, for others it can be a very debilitating and even disabling condition.

Did you know?

Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis in the UK1.

What are the symptoms of osteoarthritis?

The main symptoms of osteoarthritis are:

  • Joint pain
  • Stiffness
  • Difficulty moving your joint(s)

However, some people also experience swelling, tenderness, and a grating or crackling sound when moving the affected joint. It's a good idea to see your GP if you have any of these symptoms, as they are only likely to get worse if ignored. The resulting appointment will generally include a physical examination. In some cases, you may also be sent for an x-ray or an MRI scan to check the state of your joints.

What causes osteoarthritis?

Everyday usage takes its toll on your joints. But in most cases, the body can repair low level damage itself.

As the level of damage increases, some people develop osteoarthritis. And others don't.

There's no known medical reason for this, but factors that can increase your risk of osteoarthritis include:

  • Age - the condition is more common in older people
  • Joint injuries - especially if you overuse a joint while it heals after an injury or operation
  • Other related conditions - such as rheumatoid arthritis
  • Obesity - due to the extra strain the excess weight puts on your joints
  • Genetics - osteoarthritis sometimes runs in families (although no single gene has been identified as the cause of this)

Know your numbers

The total number of people with osteoarthritis in the UK is thought to be around 8.5 million.2.

What treatments are available for osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a long-term condition for which there is no total cure. However, there are treatments available to manage the symptoms, which don't always get worse over time.

Painkillers are helpful as they can allow you to stay active and follow an exercise plan designed to help improve your symptoms.

Medications you may be prescribed to help manage the pain associated with osteoarthritis include:

  • Paracetamol
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Opioids, such as codeine
  • Capsaicin cream

In severe cases, you may also be offered steroid injections or a surgical procedure such as an arthroplasty or joint replacement.

Seeing a physiotherapist can also help - especially if you keep doing the exercises suggested longer term.

Can I avoid developing osteoarthritis?

It's not possible to prevent osteoarthritis altogether; if you're going to get it, you're going to get it.

However, you may be able to minimise your risk of developing the condition by following certain healthy living rules.

These include maintaining a healthy weight and paying attention to your posture.

If, say, you work at a desk, making sure your chair is the correct height and taking regular breaks where you leave your desk to walk around can help to avoid or at least delay the onset of osteoarthritis.

While few of us go out seeking to injure ourselves, avoiding injuries such as torn ligaments and tendons where possible is also a good idea, as these can lead to osteoarthritis even in younger people.

Did you know?

Osteoarthritis is more common in women than men.

How can I alleviate the symptoms of osteoarthritis?

Mild symptoms can sometimes be managed by making small lifestyle changes such as:

  • 1. Walking as much as possible - cycling and swimming are good choices for people with osteoarthritis
  • 2. Eating healthily and losing weight if you're overweight or obese
  • 3. Wearing suitable footwear that supports and cushions your joints as you move
  • 4. Using special devices such as a knee brace or insoles that spread your weight more evenly to reduce the strain on your joints

If your symptoms are more severe, you can also seek support to help you cope with issues such as reduced mobility.

Some people find it helpful to talk to their GP about this, while others prefer getting advice from support groups set up by charities for people with arthritis.

What type of exercise can I do with osteoarthritis?

Regular exercise is one of the best ways to combat the symptoms of osteoarthritis as it helps to both build the muscles supporting your joints and strengthen the joints themselves.

Exercising is also good for losing weight, improving your posture, and relieving stress, all of which can help to ease osteoarthritis symptoms.

However, some types of exercise are better than others.

You should, for example, avoid high impact sports such as running and weightlifting, as these put a lot of strain on your joints, and do activities such as swimming and cycling instead.

Whether you have osteoarthritis or not, current NHS advice is to try to do at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity (such as cycling or fast walking) every week.

That said, as injuries can exacerbate osteoarthritis symptoms, it's important not to overdo it and to take care to avoid falls where possible.


About the author

Jessica Bown is a freelance writer and journalist.