Symptoms of Osteoarthritis to Watch for

Medically Reviewed

Because primary osteoarthritis develops slowly, people rarely notice any symptoms before they reach their 40s or 50s. In addition, when symptoms first appear, they are usually mild. For example, your joints may ache after exercising or may be stiff when you get out of bed in the morning.

Pain and Swelling

As osteoarthritis advances, you may hear cracking or creaking sounds or feel mild pain when moving joints in your hands, knees, hips and spine. You may notice that activity makes the pain worse and rest relieves it. Some swelling and joint deformity may occur as the disease progresses. However, if you develop inflammation (hot, red or tender joints), you may have rheumatoid arthritis, not osteoarthritis.

Knobby Nodes

Enlargement of the finger joints is common in the later stages of osteoarthritis. Knobby overgrowths of the joints nearest to the fingertips (Heberden’s nodes) occur more often in women and tend to run in families. Similar enlargements located on the middle joints of the fingers are known as Bouchard’s nodes.

Disease Progression

In many people, osteoarthritis symptoms progress very little. In others, pain and stiffness gradually worsen until they limit daily activities, such as walking, climbing stairs, or preparing meals. Nevertheless, discomfort and loss of function are not inevitable.

The prognosis of people with osteoarthritis is generally good. For example, one study followed 63 people who had osteoarthritis of the hand or knee. X-rays and reports of pain over an average of 11 years showed little disease progression among those whose initial symptoms were mild or moderate—which is the case for most people.