In order to bring you the best possible user experience, this site uses Javascript. If you are seeing this message, it is likely that the Javascript option in your browser is disabled. For optimal viewing of this site, please ensure that Javascript is enabled for your browser.


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.

About osteoarthritis 

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.

how knee is affected by osteoarthritis

Symptoms of osteoarthritis 

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:

  • Hand. The base of your thumb and the joints at the end of your fingers are affected, resulting in firm, knobbly swellings known as Heberden’s nodes on the back of these joints.
  • Neck and back (spondylosis). The discs of cartilage between the bones in your back (vertebrae) become thinner, causing the spaces to narrow. Outgrowths form at the edges of your vertebrae and joints, causing pain and numbness to travel down your arm.
  • Feet. Osteoarthritis generally affects the joint at the base of your big toe. This either makes it stiff - leading to difficulty walking - or bent, which may cause painful bunions.
  • Knee. You will probably have pain at the front and sides of your knee. If your osteoarthritis is severe, your knees may become bent and bowed.
  • Hip. You're likely to have pain mainly in the front of your groin, but sometimes around the side and front of your thigh, buttock or down to your knee. If it's severe, your affected leg may become shorter.

Causes of osteoarthritis 

The exact reasons why you develop osteoarthritis aren't fully understood. However, certain things that may increase your risk include:

  • being over 45
  • being female
  • being overweight or obese
  • someone else in your family having the condition
  • playing sport professionally and injuring your joints
  • having an injury or an operation on a joint for any other reason
  • having rheumatoid arthritis - you may develop secondary osteoarthritis.

Diagnosis of osteoarthritis 

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.

Treatment of osteoarthritis 


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:

  • wearing shock-absorbent shoes such as trainers with thick, soft soles
  • using a walking stick
  • wearing a knee brace or an insole, or a support for your thumb
  • electrotherapy, for example transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)
  • manipulation and stretching of your hip
  • hot and cold packs.

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.

Complementary therapies

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.

Further information 

Arthritis Australia
1800 011 041


Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). A snapshot of arthritis in Australia 2010. Cat. no. PHE 126. [online] Canberra, ACT: AIHW. Oct 2010 [Accessed 6 Jul 2011] Available from:

Arthritis Australia and Australian Rheumatology Association. Healthy eating and arthritis. [online] 2007 [Last reviewed Jan 2011, accessed 20 Jun 2011] Available from: (PDF 308kb)

Arthritis Australia and Australian Rheumatology Association. Osteoarthritis. [online] 2007 [Last reviewed Jan 2011, accessed 20 Jun 2011] Available from: (PDF 306kb)

Arthritis Australia and Australian Rheumatology Association. Physical Activity. [online] 2007 [Last reviewed Jan 2011, accessed 20 Jun 2011] Available from: (PDF 229kb)

Arthritis Australia and Australian Rheumatology Association. Medicines and arthritis. [online] 2007 [Last reviewed Jan 2011, accessed 20 Jun 2011] Available from: (PDF 305kb

Arthritis Australia and Australian Rheumatology Association. Complementary therapies. [online] 2007 [Last reviewed Jan 2011, accessed 20 Jun 2011] Available from: (PDF 323kb)

Arthritis Australia and Australian Rheumatology Association. Glucosamine and chondroitin. [online] 2007 [Last reviewed Jan 2011, accessed 20 Jun 2011] Available from: (PDF 314kb)

Arthritis Australia and Australian Rheumatology Association. Fish oils. [online] 2007 [Last reviewed Jan 2011, accessed 20 Jun 2011] Available from: (PDF 310kb)

Bartels EM Lund H Hagen KB et al. Aquatic exercise for the treatment of knee and hip osteoarthritis. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2007, Issue 4. Art. No.: CD005523

Brosseau L MacLeay L Welch V Tugwell P Wells GA. Intensity of exercise for the treatment of osteoarthritis. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2003, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD004259

Brouwer RW Jakma TSC Bierma-Zeinstra SMA et al. Osteotomy for treating knee osteoarthritis. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2007, Issue 2. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD004019.pub3

Brouwer RW van Raaij TM Jakma TTSC et al. Braces and orthoses for treating osteoarthritis of the knee. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2005, Issue 1. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD004020.pub2

Clinical Knowledge Summaries. Rheumatoid arthritis. [online] London: National Institutes for Health and Clinical Excellence. 2008 [Last updated Sept 2010, accessed 5 Jul 2011] Available from:

Fortin PR, Lew RA, Liang MH, et al. Validation of a meta-analysis: the effects of fish oil in rheumatoid arthritis. J Clin Epidemiol. 1995; 48(11): 1379-90.

Fransen M McConnell S. Exercise for osteoarthritis of the knee. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2008, Issue 4. Art. No.: CD004376

Lützner J Kasten P Günther KP et al. Surgical options for patients with osteoarthritis of the knee. Nat Rev Rheumatol. 2009; 5: 309-16.

National Prescribing Service (NPS). Glucosamine and chondroitin in osteoarthritis. [online] 2003 [accessed 7 Jul 2011] Available from:

Rossi S (ed). Australian Medicines Handbook. Adelaide: Australian Medicines Handbook. 2009.

Towheed T Maxwell L Judd M et al. Acetaminophen for osteoarthritis. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2006, Issue 1. Art. No.: CD004257

Towheed TE Maxwell L Anastassiades TP et al. Glucosamine therapy for treating osteoarthritis. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2008, Issue 4. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD002946.pub2

Last published: 30 July 2011

This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

Bupa Australia Pty Ltd makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the information. Bupa Australia is not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of or reliance on the information. Except that which cannot be excluded by law. We recommend that you consult your doctor or other qualified health professional if you have questions or concerns about your health. For more details on how we produce our health content, visit the About our health information page.

health insurance quote Online health assessment

Tools and apps

blue arrowMy Joint Pain

Expert advice from Arthritis Australia and leading specialists, in partnership with the Bupa Health Foundation

blue arrowBMI Calculator
blue arrowIdeal weight

Bupa programs and support

blue arrowOsteoarthritis Healthy Weight For Life