Osteoarthritis

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This page has been written for people affected by osteoarthritis. It provides general information to help you understand how osteoarthritis affects you and what you can do to manage it. It also tells you where to find further information and advice.

Osteoarthritis (OA) is a condition that affects the whole joint including bone, cartilage, ligaments and muscles.

Osteoarthritis may include:

  • inflammation of the tissue around a joint
  • damage to joint cartilage - this is the protective cushion on the ends of your bones which allows a joint to move smoothly
  • bony spurs growing around the edge of a joint
  • deterioration of ligaments (the tough bands that hold your joint together) and tendons (cords that attach muscles to bones).

Osteoarthritis can affect any joint but occurs most often in the knees, hips, finger joints and big toe.

Osteoarthritis can develop at any age but tends to be more common in people aged over 40 years or those who have had joint injuries.

Osteoarthritis is different to osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a condition where the bones become fragile and brittle, causing them to break more easily.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of OA vary from person to person. Your symptoms will also depend on which joints are affected.

OA tends to come on slowly, over months or even years. The most common symptoms are pain and stiffness of the joints. These sensations are usually worst with activity initially but can be more constant in later disease. These symptoms may affect your ability to do normal daily activities, such as walking, climbing stairs and opening jars. Other symptoms may include clicking noises, grating sensations, or a loss of flexibility in a joint.

What causes it?

Research shows there are some things that may put you at more risk of developing OA in certain joints, such as:

  • knees: being overweight; having a previous knee injury; jobs involving kneeling; climbing and squatting 
  • hips: being overweight; having a previous hip injury; jobs involving lifting heavy loads (including farming); a family history of OA
  • hands: a family history of OA; repetitive use or previous injuries to the hands; being overweight.

How is it diagnosed?

Your doctor will diagnose OA from your symptoms and a physical examination. An x-ray may show the narrowing and changes in the shape of your joint. However x-rays do not diagnose how much trouble you will have. An x-ray that shows joint damage does not always mean you will have a lot of pain or problems. On the other hand your joint may be very painful despite x-rays being normal. Blood tests are only helpful to rule out other types of arthritis.

What will happen to me?

The impact of OA on your normal activities and lifestyle depends on which joints are affected. However the outlook for most people with OA is very positive. For many people OA will be mild and not cause major problems. OA of the hip and knee can sometimes cause severe disability and surgery to replace joints may be necessary. Joint surgery is usually only an option if less invasive treatments, such as weight loss, exercise, and medicines, have failed to control your symptoms.

Is there a cure for OA?

Currently there is no cure for OA. While there are treatments that can effectively control symptoms, you should be wary of products or therapies that claim to cure OA.

Osteoarthritis continued...

For Ken and Evelyn Missen, living with osteoarthritis has had one valuable upside: it was the reason they met. They have both been active leaders of the Waves program in Melbourne for many years, and see the physical as well as the mental benefits of staying active. Apart from having eight grandchildren between them, they also work closely with at-risk and vulnerable people within their local community, and hope to encourage more men to seek treatment for their musculoskeletal conditions.

Ken and Evelyn tell their story

Page created on 06 March 2012 - Content updated on 01 September 2014