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Also known as degenerative arthritis or degenerative joint disease, osteoarthritis is a long-term condition that causes joints to become painful and stiff. It’s the most common type of arthritis in the UK, affecting over 8.75 million people.

Over the course of your lifetime, your joints are exposed to normal, day-to-day stress, and as you age, you will have inevitably sustained some damage as a result of this and the normal aging process. However, your body is usually able to repair much of this.

Osteoarthritis extends beyond normal wear and tear and occurs when the structures of the joint – especially the protective cartilage on the ends of your bones - degenerate, causing pain, swelling and problems moving the joint. Bony growths can also develop, and the affected area can become hot, red and swollen. This makes mobility difficult and painful.

The condition most commonly affects the hands, feet, spine, and the large weight bearing joints, such as the hips and knees, although any joint can be affected. As it progresses, the affected joints can appear larger than normal, and may feel very stiff, with symptoms worsening with excessive or prolonged use.

What are the main risk factors for developing osteoarthritis?

Several things are thought to increase your risk of developing osteoarthritis, including:

  • Being over the age of 45, and female (although the reason for this gender disparity is not clear).
  • Being overweight or obese can heighten the risk of developing osteoarthritis due to the excess strain on weight-bearing joints such as the hips and knees.
  • Having another arthritic condition such as gout and rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Not allowing yourself enough recovery time post-injury or surgery.
  • A family history of osteoarthritis although such a history does not mean that you will develop the condition.

How is it diagnosed?

See your GP if you have severe persistent joint pain, swelling or stiffness.

The pain associated with osteoarthritis is often described as a sharp ache or burning sensation in the joint’s associated muscles and tendons. In some cases, people can also experience muscle spasms and/or contractions in the tendons.

Generally a physical examination will indicate whether a joint is arthritic, and imaging investigations such as X-rays can confirm the diagnosis.

How is osteoarthritis treated?

Osteoarthritis is a long-term condition and established joint damage is not reversible. However, with the right treatment, it can stabilise and in some cases, may even improve over time.

Your GP can suggest a range of treatments depending on the severity of the condition including:

  • Regular, gentle exercise
  • Losing weight if you’re overweight
  • Wearing sturdy and comfortable shoes
  • Analgesics (prescription or over-the-counter)
  • A structured programme of physiotherapy with a qualified professional
  • Avoiding cold temperatures and high humidity environments where possible
  • Relaxation exercises to reduce the emotional stress of living with chronic pain
  • In some cases, where the damage to joints is extreme, surgery may be required to repair, strengthen or replace a damaged joint.