Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis, affecting an estimated 1.6 million Australians. It develops gradually over time, causing joints to become stiff and painful. It can affect any joint but it most commonly affects the hands, knees, hips, feet and spine.
Osteoarthritis is more common among women and people aged over 45. It's a major cause of disability and reduction in quality of life in Australia.
Osteoarthritis is often thought of as a 'wear and tear' disease. It causes the cartilage on the end of your bones to get rougher and thinner. The bone underneath makes up for this by thickening and growing outwards, creating outgrowths (osteophytes). These can make your joint appear knobbly. The capsule around the joint also thickens and becomes inflamed.
Although there isn't a cure, there are many treatments and self-help measures that can ease your symptoms.
If you have osteoarthritis, your joints will be stiff and painful, and may be swollen. The pain may be worse after exercise. Many people find they can't move the joint as much or as easily as before. It may make creaking sounds called crepitations. As osteoarthritis progresses your joints may become misshapen, look knobbly and become unstable.
If you have severe or advanced osteoarthritis, it's possible that you will feel pain all the time, even at night and when you're resting.
More specific symptoms for different joints include:
The exact reasons why you develop osteoarthritis aren't fully understood. However, certain things that may increase your risk include:
There's no single test that can check for osteoarthritis, so your GP will ask about your symptoms and examine you. They may also ask about your medical history. They will look for bony outgrowths, swelling, creaking, instability and reduced movement of your joint, and ask how long your joints feel stiff in the mornings.
Although you may not feel like it, it's very important to do regular exercise to strengthen your muscles around the affected joint and give it more support. Your GP is likely to advise you to take regular aerobic exercise, such as walking or swimming, and do strengthening exercises whatever your age or disability.
Regular exercise combined with a healthy, balanced diet will also help you to lose any excess weight. This will reduce the strain on your knee joints. It's a good idea to exercise little and often. Stop doing exercise or activities that cause you pain because you’ll continue to damage the joint.
A physiotherapist, occupational therapist or exercise physiologist can give you specific exercises for the affected joint.
Other self-help treatments that may help reduce your symptoms include:
If your osteoarthritis stops you from carrying out daily activities, such as turning on taps, your GP may refer you to an occupational therapist.
Lots of claims are made about certain foods affecting osteoarthritis but there is little evidence to support them. The only certainty is that if you're overweight, eating a balanced diet that is low in sugar and fat will help you to lose excess weight and ease your symptoms.
Glucosamine sulphate and chondroitin supplements may provide you with some pain relief, although there’s limited evidence of effectiveness. Glucosamine usually comes from shellfish, so don't take it if you have a shellfish allergy. However, vegetarian versions are available and these may be suitable if you're allergic to shellfish.
There’s only limited evidence that cod liver oil is helpful if you have osteoarthritis.
Medicines can't cure osteoarthritis but they can relieve your symptoms. Pain may be relieved by non-prescription painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. Always read the accompanying consumer medicines information and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.
You may wish to use non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) in the form of creams and gels that you rub into your affected joints. These are less likely to have side-effects than NSAIDs taken as tablets or capsules, but this means you may notice only limited benefit as less of the medicine gets to the affected area.
If paracetamol and NSAID creams and gels don’t help your symptoms, then your GP may prescribe NSAIDs to take as tablets or capsules to reduce the inflammation, pain, and stiffness. However, it's important to balance any benefits these may offer with possible negative side effects.
Your GP will only prescribe stronger painkillers if your pain is severe. They may also suggest steroid injections given directly into the affected area.
If you have severe osteoarthritis, then your GP may refer you for a surgical procedure such as a hip or knee replacement. These procedures have high rates of success in improving mobility and reducing pain.
There’s good evidence to suggest that acupuncture is effective in relieving symptoms of osteoarthritis.
There’s little evidence for other therapies, although you may find they make you feel more relaxed, which helps you better manage your osteoarthritis. Speak to your GP before trying complementary therapy or herbal remedies.
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Last published: 30 July 2011
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