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What Is Osteoarthritis?

Cartilage is the tissue that wraps the ends of the bones at a joint. It allows the bones to glide past one another for ease of movement and prevents those bones from grinding against each other. Osteoarthritis is a degenerative condition in which the cartilage between the bones of a joint breaks down, causing those bones to rub together.

Osteoarthritis is painful and it gets worse over time. It can affect any joint in the body, but the most common sites are the hands, knees, hips and spine.

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It differs significantly from the second-most common form, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), which is an autoimmune condition that causes inflammation in the joints.


Osteoarthritis symptoms can include:

  • Bone spurs
  • Crackling or grating sounds and sensations
  • Pain
  • Stiffness
  • Swelling

Causes and Risk Factors

Developing osteoarthritis is usually the result of multiple risk factors, some preventable and some not. These potential causes include:

  • Activity: Some sports that carry the risk of joint injury—like football, soccer, cycling or wrestling—also carry an increased risk of osteoarthritis.
  • Age: The risk of osteoarthritis rises with age. At least 80 percent of people over age 55 have evidence of the condition.
  • Gender: Women are between two and three times more likely to develop osteoarthritis than men.
  • Genes: Researchers believe at least seven genes help determine whether someone is more susceptible to osteoarthritis. How they interact and whether other genes are involved is still unknown.
  • Obesity: Being overweight or obese is the most significant preventable risk factor for developing osteoarthritis.
  • Occupation: Jobs that require kneeling and squatting, such as carpentry and dock work, have been linked to a higher incidence of osteoarthritis of the knee, while occupations that require heavy lifting, long periods of standing or several miles of walking per day have been linked to osteoarthritis of the hip.


There is no single test to determine if someone has osteoarthritis. Doctors will usually start with a medical history, paying attention to any osteoarthritis symptoms and risk factors, and will likely progress to a physical examination of any affected joints.

No blood tests exist for osteoarthritis, but blood tests may be useful for ruling out other causes of joint pain. For example, the presence of certain chemicals that signal inflammation may lead doctors to a diagnosis of RA or another inflammatory cause of pain.

Likewise, an X-ray alone is usually not enough to diagnose osteoarthritis because cartilage does not show up on an X-ray. However, degradation of cartilage can be inferred by a narrowing of space between the bones of a joint on an X-ray. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can show cartilage and other soft tissue, but it is not often used in diagnosing osteoarthritis. Standing X-rays are helpful in diagnosing osteoarthritis of the knee.

Treatment and Prevention

Osteoarthritis is not curable, but it is manageable. Symptoms can be controlled, and often the progression of the condition will level off. Osteoarthritis is treated in a variety of ways, including medicine, surgery and lifestyle and alternative interventions.

Lifestyle modifications that might help are:

  • Physical therapy
  • Changing or eliminating activities that cause pain
  • Weight loss

Medicinal treatments include:

  • Analgesics such as acetaminophen
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Steroid injections
  • Hyaluronate sodium injections

Surgical options include:

  • Joint replacement to replace a damaged joint with an artificial joint
  • Realignment surgery to line up bones in the joint that may be out of place
  • Debridement surgery to remove damaged tissue
  • Cartilage grafting to attach new cartilage to the bones of a joint
  • Fusion to graft two bones together in badly damaged joints

If you have osteoarthritis, schedule an appointment with one of our specialists today to discuss your treatment options.

To learn more about treatment options for osteoarthritis, follow the link below and answer a few short questions. Someone will get back to you as soon as possible. Thank you for choosing Summit Health.

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