Osteoarthritis FAQ

What is osteoarthritis (OA)?

Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common form of arthritis. It is sometimes called degenerative joint disease or “wear and tear” arthritis. It most frequently occurs in the hands, hips, and knees.
With OA, the cartilage within a joint begins to break down and the underlying bone begins to change. These changes usually develop slowly and get worse over time. OA can cause pain, stiffness, and swelling, and can result in disability.

What are the signs and symptoms of OA?

  • Pain or aching.
  • Stiffness.
  • Decreased range of motion (or flexibility).
  • Swelling.

How many people have OA?

OA affects over 30 million US adults.

What causes OA?

OA is caused by damage or breakdown of joint cartilage between bones.

What are the risk factors for OA?

  • Joint injury or overuse—Injury or overuse, such as knee bending and repetitive stress on a joint, can damage a joint and increase the risk of OA in that joint.
  • Age—The risk of developing OA increases with age.
  • Gender—Women are more likely to develop OA than men, especially after age 50.
  • Being obese—Extra weight puts more stress on joints, particularly weight-bearing joints like the hips and knees.
  • Genetics—People who have family members with OA are more likely to develop OA. People who have hand OA are more likely to develop knee OA.
  • Race— Some Asian populations have lower risk for OA.

How is OA diagnosed?

A doctor diagnoses OA through a review of symptoms, physical examination, X-rays, and lab tests.
A rheumatologist, a doctor who specializes in arthritis and other related conditions, can help if there are any questions about the diagnosis.

How is OA treated?

There is no cure for OA, so doctors usually treat OA symptoms with a combination of therapies, which may include the following:

  • Increasing physical activity.
  • Physical therapy with muscle strengthening exercises.
  • Weight loss.
  • Medications, including over-the-counter pain relievers and prescription drugs.
  • Supportive devices such as crutches or canes.
  • Surgery (if other treatment options have not been effective).

In addition to these treatments, people can gain confidence in managing their OA with self-management strategies proven to reduce pain and disability so they can pursue the activities important to them.

What are the complications of OA?

Osteoarthritis can cause severe joint pain, swelling, and stiffness. In some cases it also causes reduced function and disability; some people are no longer able to do daily tasks or work. Severe cases may require joint replacement surgery, particularly for knee or hip OA.

How can I manage OA and improve my quality of life?

  • Get physically active. Experts recommend that adults engage in 150 minutes per week of moderate physical activity, or 30 minutes a day for 5 days. Activity can be broken into short periods of 10 minutes or more during the day. Moderate, low impact activities recommended include walking, swimming, or biking. Regular physical activity can also reduce the risk of developing other chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Learn more about physical activity for arthritis.
  • Go to effective physical activity programs. For those who worry that physical activity may make OA worse or are unsure how to exercise safely, participation in physical activity programs can help reduce pain and disability related to arthritis and improve mood and the ability to move. Classes take place at local Ys, parks, and community centers. These classes can help people with OA feel better. Learn more about CDC-recommended physical activity programs.
  • Join a self-management education class, which helps people with arthritis and other chronic conditions—including OA—understand how arthritis affects their lives and increase their confidence in controlling their symptoms and living well. Learn more about the CDC-recommended self-management education programs.
  • Lose weight. For people who are overweight or obese, losing weight reduces pressure on joints, particularly weight bearing joints like the hips and knees. Reaching or maintaining a healthy weight can relieve pain, improve function, and slow the progression of OA.

Page last reviewed: September 6, 2017


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