Osteoarthritis is a condition that causes pain and stiffness in the joints. According to the NHS, osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis in the UK and affects around eight million people.

The condition can affect a person’s mobility, mental wellbeing, and overall quality of life, so taking steps to prevent or manage symptoms can make a real difference.

Here, we’ll cover exactly what osteoarthritis is – including symptoms, causes, prevention, and tips for coping. We hope you find it useful.

What is osteoarthritis?

What is osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is a condition that causes joints to become stiff and painful.

It initially affects the smooth cartilage of a joint (which lines the joint and caps the ends of your bones), making it more difficult to move. Then, once the cartilage lining has begun to thin out, tendons and ligaments have to work harder to move joints, which can cause swelling and lead to the formation of bony lumps (osteophytes) on and around the joint.

Osteoarthritis can affect almost any joint in the body, but most commonly occurs in the hands, fingers, hips, knees, shoulders, and spine (typically the neck or lower back). While it can affect people of any age, it’s most common in older adults.

Osteoarthritis is often confused with osteoporosis because people can have both conditions at the same time – however, the two are different. While osteoarthritis causes joint pain and reduces joint function and mobility, osteoporosis is caused by a loss of bone mass, which increases a person’s risk of fractures and injury.

The condition also differs from rheumatoid arthritis, which is another form of arthritis that causes the immune system to attack joints, often leading to pain and swelling.

To learn more about osteoarthritis and how it differs from osteoporosis, head over to the Royal Osteoporosis Society (ROS) website.

What are the symptoms of osteoarthritis?

What are the symptoms of osteoarthritis

Joint pain, stiffness, and reduced joint mobility are some of the most common osteoarthritis symptoms.

Other symptoms can include swelling, tenderness, and grating, clicking, cracking, or popping sounds when joints are moved. Some people may also have extra lumps of bone in their joints or find that their joints look slightly bigger or more ‘knobbly’ than usual.

The severity of symptoms can vary from person to person, and differ between individual joints. For example, some people might find that their symptoms come and go, or are mild, while others may experience more severe, continuous symptoms which can make it tricky to carry out daily activities.

We’ll cover some of the main types of osteoarthritis below, as well as their symptoms…

Osteoarthritis of the knee

Osteoarthritis of the knee can make it painful to walk, particularly when going up or down stairs or hills.

You may find it difficult to straighten your legs, hear grating sounds when you move the joint, or find that your knees feel as though they might ‘give way’ beneath you.

Osteoarthritis of the knee usually affects both knees over time – unless the condition was the result of an injury or other condition that only affected one knee.

Osteoarthritis of the hand

Osteoarthritis tends to affect three main areas of the hand – the base of the thumb, the middle joints of your fingers, and the joints closest to your fingertips.

Symptoms include fingers becoming stiff, painful, swollen, and bending slightly sideways. Some people may also have bumps on their finger joints, or painful cysts on the back of their fingers. In some cases, a bump can also develop at the base of the thumb where it joins to your wrist.

Osteoarthritis of the hand can make it difficult to perform manual tasks such as opening jars, writing, and turning keys.

Osteoarthritis of the hip

Osteoarthritis of the hip can make it difficult to move your hip joints – for example, making it difficult to get in and out of a car or put your shoes on.

It can also cause pain in the groin or outside of the hip, which can get more intense when you move your hips.

What causes osteoarthritis?

What causes osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is caused by damage to joints. In part, this is a normal process of life as our joints are exposed to constant low-level damage – for example, through everyday activities such as running, repetitive motions like typing, and sitting in the same cramped position for long periods of time.

In most cases, the body repairs itself and you won’t experience symptoms. However, osteoarthritis occurs when the damage is more severe and the protective cartilage at the end of bones breaks down. This can then cause swelling, pain, and problems moving the joints.

Damage to the protective cartilage can progress over time, which is why age is one of the major risk factors for osteoarthritis.

That said, the condition can occur at any time, and there are a number of other risk factors to consider too. These include…

  • Obesity – being obese places excess strain on the joints, particularly on those responsible for bearing most weight, such as the hips and knees.
  • Previous injury – for example, dislocated joints, torn cartilage, or ligament injuries – and overusing a joint when it hasn’t had enough time to heal.
  • Other health conditions – osteoarthritis can occur in joints that have already been damaged by another condition, such as gout or rheumatoid arthritis. Diabetes has also been identified as a risk factor. In fact, according to experts, almost half of adults with diabetes also have arthritis.
  • Family historyresearch suggests that osteoarthritis may run in families, though studies are yet to identify a single gene responsible for this.
  • Gender – due to factors like menopause, which can cause loss of bone mass, women have a higher risk of developing osteoarthritis than men.
  • Occupation – having a job that involves kneeling, heavy lifting, climbing, or other similar physical actions can increase the risk of osteoarthritis by placing strain on joints.
  • Poor posture – research has identified a strong link between poor posture and an increased risk of developing osteoarthritis.

How is osteoarthritis diagnosed and treated?

How is osteoarthritis diagnosed and treated

There’s no definitive test used to diagnose osteoarthritis. Instead, diagnosis will typically involve your GP asking questions about your symptoms and examining your joints.

Further tests, such as blood tests or X-rays, are not usually necessary but may be used to rule out other possible causes of symptoms, such as bone fractures or rheumatoid arthritis.

There’s currently no cure for osteoarthritis, but a number of treatments can be used to help reduce symptoms. For example, painkillers or a structured exercise plan with a physiotherapist may be advised if your symptoms are more severe.

You can find out more about osteoarthritis treatment and support on the NHS website. However, you should always seek the advice of your GP before taking any medication.

6 ways to manage symptoms and reduce your risk of developing osteoarthritis

manage symptoms and reduce your risk of developing osteoarthritis

Alongside medication and other professional treatments, lifestyle changes can also play a role in managing osteoarthritis symptoms and reducing your risk of developing the condition.

We’ll cover some of these below…

1. Exercise regularly

Regular exercise is one of the most effective ways to keep joints healthy.

Research has shown that exercising regularly can help to slow down, manage, and, in some cases, prevent osteoarthritis. This is because it can relieve stiffness, reduce joint pain and fatigue, and increase bone and muscle strength (which reduces the amount of pressure on joints).

Low-impact exercise, such as resistance training, stretching, and walking, tend to be the most effective at keeping joints mobile while limiting strain. For ideas on how to get started, you might like to check out our articles; 15 low-impact exercise ideas and 7 low-impact exercises you can do at home.

Alternatively, why not sign up to a fitness class on Rest Less Events, like a low-impact yoga, Pilates, or Tai Chi class?

2. Improve your posture

Working on your posture and avoiding staying in one position for too long can help to reduce your risk of osteoarthritis.

This includes moving around regularly and making sure that your chair’s adjusted to the correct height if your job involves sitting at a desk for long periods of time.

If this is something you’d like to work on, you may like to try these 5 exercises to help improve your posture.

3. Get enough rest

Exercise can help people keep their joints healthy and manage osteoarthritis symptoms – but getting enough rest is just as important.

Research has found that prioritising sleep quality and making sure you’re getting adequate rest each night may help to reduce osteoarthritis pain. This is because our bodies go into recovery mode during sleep.

If you struggle to get enough good quality rest, check out our tips in the sleep and fatigue section of our website.

4. Maintain a healthy weight

Being overweight places excess stress on joints, which can speed up the deterioration of joint cartilage. This can either worsen existing osteoarthritis symptoms or increase your risk of developing the condition.

As well as exercising regularly, one of the most important changes you can make towards maintaining a healthy weight is to eat a balanced diet.

If you’d like help losing weight in a healthy way, head over to the diet and nutrition and food and drink sections of our website. Here, you’ll find advice on everything from ways to cut back on added sugar to healthy and filling recipes.

5. Eat for joint health

Research has also revealed that some nutrients – such as calcium and vitamin D – are particularly beneficial for joint health.

Some joint-friendly foods include fatty fish, walnuts, ginger, broccoli, and olive oil. For example, research has found that the omega-3 fatty acid content of fish can lower the number of inflammatory markers in the body which are linked with osteoarthritis.

For more information on how to eat for joint health, check out our article; 10 best foods for healthy joints and which to avoid.

6. Maintain healthy blood sugar levels

Research has drawn a link between diabetes and an increased risk of developing osteoarthritis.

This is because high glucose levels can speed up the creation of molecules that make bone cartilage stiff, and diabetes can also cause inflammation in the body that accelerates the breakdown of cartilage.

As a result, regulating blood glucose levels can help to prevent the onset of osteoarthritis and manage symptoms. For more information, you might like to have a read of our article; 12 science-backed ways to lower (or regulate) blood sugar levels.

Final thoughts…

Osteoarthritis can be a painful and frustrating condition to live with. While there’s currently no cure, there are a number of things that can help to manage symptoms and also reduce your risk of developing the condition. Simple lifestyle habits, such as eating a joint-friendly diet and prioritising good quality sleep, can make all the difference.

For further reading, head over to the general health section of our website. Here, you’ll find information on everything from gut and bladder health to important health checks and ways to boost longevity.

What are your tips for living with osteoarthritis? Have you found this article useful? We’d be interested in hearing from you in the comments below.