Osteoarthritis (OA) affects more than one-third of adults over the age of 65. A significant fraction of younger adults also suffer from OA symptoms.
OA occurs when cartilage begins to break down from age or heavy use. Cartilage normally covers the ends of bones and allows them to move freely against each other. The degeneration of cartilage exposes the bones of the joint and allows bone on bone contact. This can cause:
- reduced range of motion
- changes in joint appearance
Osteoarthritis can affect any joint in your body, but the most commonly affected areas are:
- lower back
Not all joint pain and stiffness is caused by OA. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can cause similar pain, but there are a number of physical symptoms that differentiate RA, an inflammatory disease, from OA. One readily visible difference is that RA, unlike OA, is typically symmetrical. If it affects a joint on one side of the body, it will generally affect the same joint on the other.
Common osteoarthritis symptoms
The symptoms of OA vary from person to person. Some people may only have mild pain and swelling. Others may experience joint damage that significantly affects their quality of life. OA of the knees, in particular, is a major cause of disability in the United States.
For most people with OA, stiffness is worse in the mornings. It is usually also worse after periods of inactivity or rest. At these times, joints may feel:
- hard to move
Soreness and aching pain are common symptoms of OA. Muscle pain can also occur in the surrounding tissue. Usually, pain, like stiffness, is most intense after sleep or a period of inactivity.
Some people with OA feel more pain during movement of the joints and less pain when at rest. Over time, the pain may occur even when the joints are not used.
Joint tenderness, sensitivity of the joints to touch, can also occur in people with OA.
Pain and tenderness can be caused by:
- bones rubbing against each other
- inflammation in the joints
- bone spurs (bony growths)
- pinched nerves caused by swelling and displacement of joint tissue
Swelling is more common in people with RA than OA. However, people with OA also experience swelling. Swelling is the body’s reaction to irritants, such as bone on bone contact. It contributes to the stiffness and pain experienced by patients with OA.
Loss of flexibility and range of motion
According to the CDC, about 80 percent of people with OA have some problem with range of motion. About 25 percent need assistance with daily living activities. They may need help with:
- putting on shoes
- getting in and out of chairs
- climbing stairs
Bone spurs are small bony projections. They can occur naturally, but they may also be a response to inflammation in a joint. Bone spurs, also called osteophytes, can sometime be felt as hard little lumps around joints affected by OA. They are not painful in and of themselves. However, bone spurs can rub against nearby nerve and bone, causing additional pain.
People with OA often have to exert extra physical effort in order to carry out the basic daily tasks of living. This can cause fatigue.
Inflammation is caused by chemical mediators called cytokines. They can also cause fatigue.
Many people with OA hear sounds in their joints when they move. Their joints may make noises such as:
These noises are often accompanied by discomfort or pain.
Depression and/or anxiety
People who suffer from OA are at an increased risk for anxiety and depression. Chronic pain from OA can cause a great deal of stress, as can the disability that often results from OA.
Having healthy coping mechanisms in place can reduce the risk of depression and anxiety.
Fever is not generally a symptom of OA. However, extensive inflammation can cause a low-grade fever.
Joint symptoms that signal an emergency
OA may negatively impact your quality of life. However, it is usually not a disease that requires urgent or emergency action.
That said, not all joint pain is caused by OA. Joint pain can also be caused by other, serious health problems. Call your doctor if you experience:
- joint pain lasting longer than three days
- severe, unexplained joint pain
- severe swelling in a joint
- difficulty moving the joint
- heat or redness in the skin around the joint
- fever or unexplained weight loss