What Is the Main Cause of Osteoarthritis?

Reviewed on 6/23/2022
A man's knee with osteoporosis and a doctor looking at an X-ray image of it
The main cause of osteoarthritis is the breakdown of cartilage over time. Risk factors for developing osteoarthritis include advanced age, gender, joint injury or trauma, obesity, certain occupations (those that require physical activity), and playing certain sports.

Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis that often develops with age. It is a chronic condition in which the cartilage between bones that cushions the joints wears down and as it does, the bones rub against each other causing pain, stiffness, swelling, and reduced joint motion. 

The main cause of osteoarthritis is the breakdown of cartilage over time. 

Risk factors for developing osteoarthritis include:

  • Advanced age
    • At least 80% of people over age 55 have some X-ray evidence of osteoarthritis
  • Gender
    • Women are two to three times more likely than men to develop osteoarthritis 
  • Joint injury or trauma
  • Obesity
  • Certain occupations
    • Those that require frequent squatting and kneeling, and other activities that involve heavy lifting, prolonged standing, or walking several miles each day
  • Certain sports 
    • Boxing, cycling, soccer, wrestling, gymnastics, ice hockey, pitching in baseball, and football
    • Noncompetitive running does not seem to increase the risk

What Are Symptoms of Osteoarthritis?

Symptoms of osteoarthritis most commonly affect the hands, knees, hips, feet, and spine, though it can affect nearly any joint in the body and can include: 

  • Joint pain
    • Felt over or near the affected joint but it may sometimes be felt in other areas
    • Worsens with activity but is relieved by rest
    • In severe cases joint pain can occur even at rest or at night
  • Joint stiffness
    • Common in the morning
    • Often goes away within 30 minutes of getting up, but can return throughout the day if a person is inactive
    • May also occur in cold, damp, or low-pressure weather
  • Joint swelling (effusion) 
  • Crackling or grating sensation (crepitus) 
  • Changes in joint shape 
  • Bone spurs (osteophytes)

How Is Osteoarthritis Diagnosed?

Osteoarthritis is diagnosed based on a number of factors, including a patient's age, medical history, and symptoms. 

Tests used to diagnose osteoarthritis or rule out other conditions may include:

  • X-rays 
  • Arthrocentesis (joint fluid analysis) 
  • Arthroscopy (may also be used to repair joint damage)
  • Blood tests be performed to rule out other conditions 

What Is the Treatment for Osteoarthritis?

Treatment for osteoarthritis includes lifestyle modifications, medications, and/or surgery. 

Lifestyle modifications to treat osteoarthritis include:

  • Exercise programs 
  • Weight loss if needed
  • Physical therapy 
  • Orthoses such as splints and braces
  • Assistive devices such as canes, walkers, raised toilet seats, tub and shower bars, and electric-powered seat lifts
  • Arthritis education and support 

Medications used to treat osteoarthritis include:

  • Topical therapies 
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) 
  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol
  • Glucocorticoid (steroid) injections 

Surgery is a last resort and is usually reserved for when severe osteoarthritis does not respond to other treatments and significantly limits a person’s activities. Types of surgery for osteoarthritis include: 

  • Surgery to realign bones and other joint structures that have become misaligned because of chronic osteoarthritis
  • Fusion surgery to permanently fuse two or more bones together at a joint
  • Joint replacement surgery


What joints are most often affected by osteoarthritis? See Answer

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Reviewed on 6/23/2022

Image Source: iStock Images