More than 32.5 million Americans have been diagnosed with osteoarthritis (OA), making it the most commonly diagnosed type of arthritis.¹ OA is a degenerative disease that many people develop as they age – 88% of OA patients are over the age of 45.² OA will gradually worsen over time, but there are a few ways to manage OA symptoms to improve your quality of life.
The most important thing is to recognize osteoarthritis symptoms early so you can manage this condition before it worsens. In this article, you’ll learn more about OA symptoms, early warning signs, when you should see a doctor, and other essential information.
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Osteoarthritis has a list of hallmark symptoms that develop slowly over time. At first, it may be easy to ignore these signs of OA. However, the changes in the joint are irreversible so it’s important to monitor anything unusual.
Here are common signs to look out for.
Pain or aching
OA pain will usually be localized around your joints, including fingers, toes, wrists, elbows, knees, ankles, shoulders, and spine. Weight-bearing joints like those in your hips, knees, and feet can be particularly troublesome.
Stiffness or numbness
You may feel stiffness or numbness in your joints after periods of rest, such as getting up in the morning or standing after prolonged sitting.
It may be difficult to move your joints to their full range of motion. Additionally, it may be difficult to perform routine daily activities, like bending over, stooping, or even reaching forward.
You may notice swelling around your joints. Inflammation around the lining of your joints can increase fluid production, which can lead to joint swelling.
You may feel discomfort when you apply gentle pressure to the joint.
Small bumps of extra bone may form around your joints, and you may be able to feel or see these bumps. Confirmation of these extra bony growths may also be seen on medical imaging (e.g., X-rays, CT scans).
Some people notice more OA pain during certain types of weather.³ Cold, wet weather, sudden temperature changes, and extreme fluctuations in barometric pressure might worsen symptoms.
These symptoms are a result of the cartilage in your joints wearing over time. Cartilage prevents the bones in your joints from rubbing together when you move. Excessive rubbing of the bones can lead to changes in the joint, such as inflammation and damage. These changes can bring more pain and discomfort.
OA is a highly individualized condition, and people experience symptoms that vary in severity. In fact, not everybody with OA feels pain.⁴ Some people feel stiff or experience swelling around their joints.
Many people with osteoarthritis report that their pain worsens with movement, particularly towards the end of the day. Others can feel bone rubbing against bone as the cartilage between the bones starts to wear away. You may even hear a grating or crackling sound during movement. For the most part, osteoarthritis pain is dull and aching.
The amount of pain you have doesn't always correlate to the amount of joint damage you have. Some people have severe pain from a small amount of joint damage, while others experience only a little pain but have extensive damage.⁵
In some people with OA, joint pain can be severe (i.e., ranked higher than a 7 on a 1–10 scale of pain). When pain from osteoarthritis becomes unbearable, your doctor may recommend treatment such as physiotherapy or surgery.
While severe pain can be difficult to live with, joint stiffness and limited flexibility are amongst the worst OA symptoms. This is because they can severely limit your mobility and stop you from participating in your favorite activities.
OA in the knees or hips may make it hard to walk or get around. Additionally, the condition can make it difficult to stand, walk, or even put on clothes and shoes. This limited range of motion and stiffness can put a serious damper on your routine and may eventually lead to disability. If your condition is not managed properly, you may end up requiring mobility aids like a walker, cane, or wheelchair.
Another severe symptom happens when OA affects your spine. The changes in your bones can lead to pressure on nerves, which can cause nerve damage or make your arms and legs feel numb, tingly, or weak.
One of osteoarthritis's most common early warning signs is joint pain that gets better with rest but returns with activity. The degradation of the cartilage between your joints is a slow process. Some people have mild symptoms for years, experiencing only a bit of pain and stiffness before the disease begins to substantially progress.
You'll likely first notice OA symptoms in joints that bear weight (like your knees and hips), and joints that get used a lot (like your fingers). When you first notice arthritic pain, the best thing you can do is try to stay active. Staying active within your limits can keep you mobile for longer. But it's important not to overdo it as that may aggravate your symptoms.
In the early stages of osteoarthritis, it can also help to lose a bit of weight. There is less stress on weight-bearing joints when you weigh less, so they experience less compression and discomfort. Before attempting to lose weight, speak with your doctor about doing so in a healthy manner.
If you experience persistent joint pain, it may be a good idea to see a doctor. They will ask you questions to find out more about your symptoms and conduct a physical exam.
In most cases, to make an OA diagnosis, doctors will perform X-rays on your affected joint(s). X-rays are great diagnostic tools for spotting other problems as well.
Your doctor may also perform a diagnostic test called ‘arthrocentesis’. During this procedure, they use a syringe to collect fluid from between your joints and send the fluid to a lab for analysis. This can be used to rule out conditions like gout.
Arthritis can be isolating and life-limiting. You may be unable to perform some of your favorite activities and have a limited ability to work or spend time with loved ones. If you find that your OA is keeping you from enjoying life, it's important to talk with your doctor. You don't have to live in pain as it can be managed with treatment.
To help you cope with your OA and manage your symptoms, your doctor may recommend treatment like:
Physical therapy – Arthritis symptoms can improve with gentle exercise.⁶ A physical therapist can show you the right types of exercises that will improve your symptoms and manage your pain.
Over-the-counter pain relievers – Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen and naproxen will help to relieve pain and inflammation. You can also buy a pain-relieving topical treatment to rub directly on the affected area. Please advise your physician before use.
Prescription medications – Corticosteroids and other prescription medications can help reduce symptoms, such as swelling and pain.
Surgery – Joint replacements, like hip and knee arthroplasties, can help to restore function and reduce pain. Surgery is usually considered when nonsurgical options no longer work.
The goal of treatment is to restore mobility and quality of life (e.g., reducing pain, restoring function to the affected joints). Losing weight and eating a healthy diet can also help manage your symptoms. However, always talk to your doctor before trying new medications or making big lifestyle changes.
Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis and affects many adults over the age of 45. OA occurs when the cartilage between joints starts to degrade, which may lead to pain or stiffness. While these are the most common symptoms, you may also notice others, such as swelling or limited flexibility around your joint(s).
The experience of having osteoarthritis is highly individualized, so not everyone with OA experiences the same symptoms. For some people, it can be an extremely painful and life-limiting condition, while for others, it could just be a minor nuisance.
If you notice pain or stiffness in your joints, talk to your doctor. Tests can be performed to diagnose OA and rule out other conditions that may be causing your joint pain.
Osteoarthritis (OA) | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
OA prevalence and burden | Osteoarthritis Action Alliance (OA)
Osteoarthritis | National Institute on Aging (NIH)
What is osteoarthritis? | Versus Arthritis
Exercise helps ease arthritis pain and stiffness | Mayo Clinic