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General Information

DEFINITION--Degeneration of cartilage at a joint and growth of bone "spurs" that inflame surrounding tissue.

BODY PARTS INVOLVED--All joints, but most common in fingers, feet, knees, hips and spine.



  • Joint stiffness and pain, including backache. Weather changes, especially cold, damp weather, may increase aching.
  • Limited movement and loss of dexterity in affected joints.
  • No redness, heat or fever in joints (usually).
  • Swelling of affected joints (sometimes), especially finger joints.
  • Cracking or grating sounds with joint movement (sometimes).

CAUSES--Exact cause is unknown. Appears to be a combination or interaction of mechanical, biologic, biochemical, inflammatory and immunologic factors.


  • Obesity.
  • Persons with occupations that put stress on joints.
  • Stress on joints caused by activity and aging. Most people over age 50 have some osteoarthritis.
  • Injury to the joint lining.


  • Maintain a normal weight for your height and body structure.
  • Be physically active, but avoid activities that lead to joint injury, especially after age 40. Try regular stretching or yoga exercises.

What To Expect


  • Medical history and exam by a doctor.
  • Laboratory blood studies to rule out inflammatory forms of arthritis.
  • X-rays of painful joints.


  • Self-care after diagnosis.
  • Doctor's treatment.
  • An overall treatment plan will involve understanding the disorder, rehabilitation, activities of daily living and medications.
  • Acupuncture (sometimes).
  • Surgery for osteoarthritis includes arthroplasty (joint replacement) and arthrodesis (immobilization of a joint).


  • Crippling (sometimes).
  • Muscles around affected joints may become smaller and weaker because of decreased use.
  • Tends to be progressive.

PROBABLE OUTCOME--Symptoms can usually be relieved, but joint changes are permanent. Pain may begin as a minor irritant, but it can become severe enough to interfere with daily activities and sleep.

How To Treat


  • To relieve pain, apply heat to painful and stiff joints for 20 minutes 2 or 3 times a day. Use hot towels, hot tubs, infrared heat lamps, electric heating pads or deep-heating ointments or lotions. Swim often in a heated pool or spa.
  • If osteoarthritis of the neck causes pain in the arms, wear a soft, immobilizing collar (Thomas collar).
  • Massage the muscles around painful joints. Massaging the joint itself is not helpful.
  • If osteoarthritis affects the spine, sleep on your back on a very firm mattress or place 3/4-inch plywood between your box spring and mattress. Waterbeds help some people.
  • Avoid chilling. Wear thermal underwear or avoid outdoor activity in cold weather.
  • Keep a positive outlook on life. Remain active to prevent wasting of muscles.

MEDICATION--Your doctor may prescribe:

  • Aspirin or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or acetominophen for pain.
  • Cortisone injections into painful, stiff joints. These may provide temporary relief.
  • Other medications as needed.


  • Rest is important only during acute phases when joints are very painful. Resume normal activity as soon as symptoms improve.
  • Physical therapy for muscle and joint rehabilitation (severe cases only).
  • May need to protect joints from overuse (crutches, cane, walker, elastic knee support).

DIET--If you are overweight, lose weight (see Weight Loss Diet in Appendix).

Call Your Doctor If

  • You have joint pain or stiffness.
  • New, unexplained symptoms develop.
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