Osteoarthritis occurs when the protective cartilage that cushions the ends of the bones wears down over time. Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, affecting about 31 million Americans. It involves the thinning or wearing down of cartilage—which is the cushion between the separate bones in a joint—and cannot be reversed. While osteoarthritis can damage any joint, it most commonly affects joints in the hands, knees, hips and spine. 

What Causes Osteoarthritis? 

Because osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage that cushions the ends of bones in your joints gradually deteriorates, age is the biggest risk factor. As someone gets older, their cartilage wears down more and leaves them more prone to osteoarthritis.  

Other risk factors associated with this condition include: 

  • Sex – Women are generally more likely to develop osteoarthritis. 
  • Weight – Increased weight adds stress to weight-bearing joints like the hips and knees. Plus, fat tissue produces proteins that can cause harmful inflammation in and around one’s joints. 
  • Joint injuries – An injury to a joint from sports or an accident can increase the risk of osteoarthritis. Even injuries that occurred years ago and seemingly healed can increase the risk of osteoarthritis. 
  • Repeated stress on the joint – If a person’s job, sport or hobbies places repetitive stress on a joint, that joint might eventually develop osteoarthritis. 
  • Genetics – Having a family history of osteoarthritis or inheriting certain genes can put one at a higher risk. 
  • Bone deformities – Some people are born with malformed joints or defective cartilage. 
  • Certain metabolic diseases – These include diabetes and hemochromatosis. 

What Are the Symptoms of Osteoarthritis? 

The symptoms of osteoarthritis often develop slowly and worsen over time. Signs and symptoms of osteoarthritis typically include: 

  • Pain 
  • Stiffness 
  • Tenderness 
  • Swelling 
  • Loss of flexibility 
  • Grating sensation within the joints 
  • Bone spurs 

How Is Osteoarthritis Diagnosed? 

Doctors will first examine the affected joint for tenderness, swelling, redness and flexibility. They can also order exams, imaging tests and lab tests such as: 

  • X-rays 
  • MRIs 
  • Blood tests 
  • Joint fluid analysis 

How Is Osteoarthritis Treated? 

Osteoarthritis cannot be reversed, but a person can receive certain treatments to reduce pain, manage symptoms and help preserve joint health, such as: 

  • Over-the-counter topical creams and gels 
  • Heating pads and ice packs 
  • Pain medications 
  • Physical and occupational therapy 
  • Cortisone injections 
  • Osteotomy 
  • Joint replacement