Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is a condition that causes joints to become painful and stiff. It's one of the most common types of arthritis in Northern Ireland. It can affect anyone but is more common in older people. You should see your GP if you have persistent symptoms of osteoarthritis.

Symptoms of osteoarthritis

The main symptoms of osteoarthritis are:

Some people also experience:

  • swelling
  • tenderness
  • a grating or crackling sound when moving the affected joints

The severity of symptoms can vary greatly from person to person, and between different affected joints.

For some people, symptoms can be mild and may come and go. Others can have more continuous and severe problems, making it difficult to carry out everyday activities.

Most joints can be affected by osteoarthritis. It most commonly affects:

  • knee joints
  • hip joints
  • small joints of the hands

Causes of osteoarthritis

As part of normal life, your joints are exposed to constant low levels of damage. Your body normally repairs the damage itself and you don't experience any symptoms.

In osteoarthritis, the protective cartilage on the ends of your bones breaks down.

This can cause:

  • pain
  • swelling
  • problems moving the joint
  • bony growths to develop
  • the area around the joint to become inflamed (red and swollen)

The exact cause isn't known. Things thought to increase your risk of developing osteoarthritis, include:

  • joint injury – overusing your joint when it hasn't fully healed after an injury or operation
  • other conditions (secondary arthritis) – osteoarthritis can occur in joints severely damaged by a previous or existing condition, such as rheumatoid arthritis or gout
  • age – your risk of developing the condition increases as you get older
  • family history of the condition
  • obesity – being obese puts excess strain on your joints

When to see your GP

See your GP if you have persistent symptoms of osteoarthritis. To help find out if you have osteoarthritis, your GP will ask you about your symptoms and examine your joints.

Your GP may suspect osteoarthritis if:

  • you're aged 45 or older
  • you have joint pain that gets worse the more you use your joints
  • you have stiffness in your joints in the morning that lasts less than 30 minutes, or stiffness after resting

If your symptoms are slightly different from those listed above, this may show another joint condition. For example, long periods of joint stiffness in the morning can be a sign of rheumatoid arthritis.

Further tests may be used to rule out other possible causes, such as:

Treating osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is a long-term condition and can't be cured. It doesn't necessarily get worse over time and it can sometimes gradually improve. Treatments are available to reduce the symptoms.

Mild symptoms can sometimes be managed with:

  • regular exercise
  • losing weight if you're overweight
  • wearing suitable footwear
  • using special devices to reduce the strain on your joints during everyday activities

If your symptoms are more severe, you may need additional treatments such as:

  • painkilling medication
  • a structured exercise plan carried out under the supervision of a physiotherapist

In some severe cases surgery may be carried out to repair, strengthen or replace a damaged joint.

Living with osteoarthritis

As osteoarthritis is a long-term condition, it's important you receive support to help you cope with any issues, such as:

  • reduced mobility
  • advice on necessary financial support

Some people may find it helpful to talk to their GP or others who are living with osteoarthritis.

Preventing osteoarthritis

It's not possible to prevent osteoarthritis altogether. However, you may be able to minimise your risk of developing it.

Exercise

Avoid exercise that puts strain on your joints and forces them to bear an excessive load, such as:

  • running
  • weight training

Instead, try exercises such as:

  • Swimming
  • cycling

With these types of exercise joints are better supported and the strain is more controlled.

Try to do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (such as cycling or fast walking) weekly to build up muscle strength and keep yourself healthy.

Posture

Maintaining good posture can also help. You should avoid staying in the same position for too long. If you work at a desk, make sure your chair is at the right height. Take regular breaks to move around

Losing weight

Being overweight or obese can increase the strain on your joints and increase your risk of developing osteoarthritis. Losing weight may help lower your chances of developing the condition.

 

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information see terms and conditions.

This page was published February 2018

This page is due for review December 2019

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