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This page was last updated: August 31st, 2021

Osteoarthritis is a condition that causes joints to become painful and stiff. It’s the most common type of arthritis in the UK, affecting approximately eight million people.
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What are the symptoms of osteoarthritis?

  • Joint pain and stiffness.
  • Swelling and tenderness.
  • A grating or crackling sound when moving the affected joints.

The severity of osteoarthritis symptoms can vary greatly from person to person and between different affected joints. For some people, the symptoms can be mild and may come and go, but other people can experience more continuous and severe problems which make it difficult to carry out everyday activities.

Almost any joint can be affected by osteoarthritis, but the condition most often causes problems in the knees, hips and small joints of the hands.

You should see your GP if you have persistent symptoms of osteoarthritis so they can confirm the diagnosis and prescribe any necessary treatment.

What causes osteoarthritis?

As part of normal life, your joints are exposed to a constant low level of damage. In most cases, your body repairs the damage itself and you won’t experience any symptoms.
In osteoarthritis, the protective cartilage on the ends of your bones breaks down, causing pain, swelling and problems moving the joint.

Bony growths can develop at the edges of your joints, and the area can become inflamed (red and swollen).

The exact cause isn’t known, but several things are thought to increase your risk of developing osteoarthritis, including:

  • Age: your risk of developing the condition increases for people who are in their late 40s and older.
  • Family history: osteoarthritis may run in families, although studies haven’t identified a single gene responsible.
  • Obesity: being obese puts excess strain on your joints, particularly those that bear most of your weight, such as your knees and hips. Losing weight and exercise may help reduce your risk.
  • Gender: women are more likely to have osteoarthritis than men.
  • Your joints may have been damaged by another disease or injury.

Diagnosing osteoarthritis

Your GP may suspect osteoarthritis if:

  • You’re aged 50 or older.
  • You have joint pain that increases the more you use your joints.
  • You have stiffness in your joints in the morning.

Treating osteoarthritis

There is no cure for osteoarthritis, but it doesn’t necessarily get any worse. The symptoms can sometimes gradually improve. A number of treatments are also available to reduce the symptoms.

These include:

  • Regular exercise.
  • Losing weight (if you’re overweight).
  • Wearing suitable footwear.
  • Reducing the strain on your joints by wearing appropriate footwear or using a walking stick or brace.
  • Taking painkillers (your GP or therapist can advise you about these).
  • Applying anti-inflammatory creams (your GP or therapist can advise you about these).

A GP or physiotherapist will be able to discuss these treatment options with you.

If your symptoms are more severe, you may need additional treatments such as a steroid injection into the affected joint and/or a tailored exercise plan.

Injections can be provided by certain GPs and physiotherapists trained in providing joint injections but can also be given by a surgeon.

A physiotherapist would provide you with a suitable exercise plan.

In a small number of cases where treatments haven’t helped or the damage to the joints is particularly severe, surgery may be carried out to repair, strengthen or replace a damaged joint.
Your GP or physiotherapist can discuss this with you.

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