Osteoarthritis (OA) is the wearing down of cartilage between bones. Cartilage is smooth tissue that cushions bones and helps them move smoothly over each other.

Joints Affected by Osteoarthritis

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OA is caused by the wearing down of cartilage between bones. The damage worsens over time. For some people, the cartilage may completely wear away.

Risk Factors

OA is more common in older adults. It is also more common in women. Other things that may raise the risk are:

  • Having a joint injury
  • Overusing a joint during work or physical activities
  • Obesity
  • Having other family members with OA


OA is most common in larger joints that support weight, such as the spine, hips, and knees. It is also common in active joints like the hand and feet. Common problems are:

  • Mild to severe pain in a joint, especially after overuse or long periods of rest
  • Stiffness that gets better with activity
  • Creaking or grating sounds in the joint
  • Swelling, stiffness, and problems moving the joint, especially in the morning


The doctor will ask about symptoms and past health. A physical exam will be done. This is often enough to make the diagnosis.

Images of the joint may be taken. This can be done with:


OA cannot be cured. The goal of treatment is to:

  • Ease joint pain and swelling
  • Improve joint function
  • Slow future damage

Treatment may change over time. Options may include:

  • Lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, eating a healthful diet, and exercising regularly
  • Supportive care, such as ice to ease swelling and heat to loosen stiff joints
  • Physical therapy to strengthen muscles and improve range of motion
  • Using supportive devices, such as crutches or canes
  • Over the counter or prescription medicine to ease pain and swelling
  • Medicated creams or lotions to apply over the joints

Some people may need surgery if other methods do not help. Surgery may be done to:

  • Remove loose pieces of bone or cartilage from joints
  • Reposition bones to balance stress on the joint
  • Replace a damaged joint with an artificial one


To lower the risk of OA:

  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Limit repetitive motions.

American College of Rheumatology

The Arthritis Foundation


The Arthritis Society

Seniors Canada


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Last reviewed January 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Laura Lei-Rivera, PT, DPT, GCS