Let’s Talk About Osteoarthritis

Get the doctor-approved scoop on OA causes, symptoms, treatments, and a jillion other tips that can make life easier.

Whether you’ve just been diagnosed or think you could have osteoarthritis, you might feel helpless, resigned, or disappointed. You may try to hide your pain, or even deny it. That’s normal, and everyone featured on HealthCentral with a chronic condition felt just like you do now. We’re here to help. On this page, you’ll discover the realities and challenges of living with osteoarthritis (OA), the best treatments, and all the crucial information to help you not just manage—but thrive. We’re sure you’ve got a lot of questions … and we’ve got answers.

Osteoarthritis

Our Pro Panel

We went to some of the nation's top experts in osteoarthritis to bring you the most up-to-date information possible.

Brian Feeley, M.D.
Brian Feeley, M.D.

Brian Feeley, M.D.

Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Chief of Sports Medicine and Shoulder Surgery

UC San Francisco and UCSF Health

San Francisco

Arya Nick Shamie, M.D.
Arya Nick Shamie, M.D.

Arya Nick Shamie, M.D.

Chief of Orthopaedic Spine Surgery and Professor of Orthopedic Surgery and Neurosurgery

UCLA School of Medicine

Los Angeles

Karmela Kim Chan, M.D.
Karmela Kim Chan, M.D.

Karmela Kim Chan, M.D.

Rheumatologist

Hospital for Special Surgery

New York City

Osteoarthritis
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the best treatment for osteoarthritis?

Good news for the pill-averse: The frontline treatment for OA is not medication but rather lifestyle changes like exercise and weight loss. In fact, research shows that exercise can be as effective nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs at reducing OA pain. Work with a physical therapist for best results.

What is the difference between rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and osteoarthritis (OA)?

Sure, the two may look—and feel—very similar, but the difference is in the cause. RA is an autoimmune disease, meaning the body’s immune system wigs out and instead of attacking infection and bacteria, it attacks healthy cells and tissues of the joint. OA, on the other hand, is the result of a process that happens to all of us as we age—the gradual wear of joint cartilage.

What foods should you avoid if you have osteoarthritis?

No specific diet is shown to help fight OA. But a general healthy diet is recommended to reduce inflammation and help you maintain a healthy weight. That means avoiding sugar and highly processed foods, and eating plenty of vegetables, fruit, and fatty fish.

How is osteoarthritis diagnosed?

Doctors diagnose OA mainly by looking at your symptoms. But if your doc feels more info is needed, she may recommend X-rays (to look for signs of cartilage loss) or lab tests that can rule out other causes of joint pain, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

What Is Osteoarthritis, Anyway?

First thing you should know if you have OA: You are far from alone. More than 32.5 million adults in the United States, and hundreds of millions more around the globe, have OA.

In fact, osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis—a catch-all term that means joint inflammation. Like all types of arthritis, it’s marked by pain, stiffness, and swelling in your joints. But unlike inflammatory forms of the disease—like rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis, where the immune system mistakenly attacks the joints—OA is actually the end result of a process that happens to all of us to some extent as we age—the gradual wear of joint cartilage. This slippery, elastic, cushiony substance keeps the bones in your joints from rubbing together. It’s pretty tough, too. But like the tires on your car, it wears down with repeated use. Certain risk factors—like genetics, injury, and being overweight—can make the cartilage wear faster.

Unlike most of the body’s tissues, which can regrow when damaged, cartilage has very limited blood supply, hampering its ability to regenerate. As cartilage breaks down, it loses the molecules responsible for the spongy, cushion-y qualities that allow it to absorb force. It becomes dry and flaky—and more susceptible to damage—and small pieces may break off, irritating and inflaming the thin tissue lining the joint (synovial membrane). The joint fluid (the lubricant, secreted by the synovial membrane, that allows joints to move smoothly) becomes less viscous and fills with inflammatory molecules that trigger pain. The result? Dull, achy, and sometimes sharp joint pain.

Eventually, the cartilage may wear completely away and bones start grinding against each other, causing even more frequent and intense pain. The bone and connective tissues may be impacted, too—when cartilage wears away, bone cells are activated to create new bony growths, called osteophytes or “bone spurs,” along the existing bone. As a result, the shape and contour of the bone can change. As the joint space narrows and bone spurs grow, the cartilage and surrounding tissues can suffer further damage. At the same time, tendons and ligaments stretch, causing more pain. It can be a downward spiral.

What Causes Osteoarthritis in the First Place?

Certain factors can increase your risk of OA or make it progress a lot faster—by damaging the cartilage or speeding its breakdown.

  • Genetics: Scientists are still investigating the role genetics plays in OA, but research suggests it is a significant factor. Identical-twin studies suggest that genetics account for about half of OA risk—meaning if your parent or sibling has it, you’re definitely at increased risk. Scientists have even linked specific genes with OA—mostly genes involved in building and maintaining cartilage, which may affect the cartilage’s ability to heal and/or its susceptibility to damage.

  • Age: OA patients are generally over 55, probably because (as we mentioned) the cartilage between the bones naturally wears over time. In fact, 80% of adults over 55 show evidence of OA on an X-ray (though not all of them will experience pain—a key symptom for diagnosis). Age can also impact muscle strength, balance, and “proprioception”—your awareness of your body’s positioning. That can mean less joint control and higher injury risk—which also increases your risk of OA.

  • Injury: About 12% of OA cases can be traced to an injury from years or decades earlier. Injury may up OA risk for a couple of reasons: (1) It can cause permanent damage to the cartilage, speeding up the degenerative process, and (2) if you injure the supportive tissues around your joint, they may be less able to withstand load and absorb shock, shifting more of the demand on your cartilage and making it more likely to break down. If you’re susceptible to OA, then an injury may predispose you at a younger age, even in your 20s or 30s. A few common injuries that increase the risk for OA:

    • Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear: This common sports injury can happen when pivoting quickly, like during a pickup game of hoops or while skiing. It can quadruple your risk of getting knee OA in the next 10 years.

    • Meniscus tear: This is another common sports injury that can happen in younger athletes. But a weakened meniscus—a C-shaped piece of cartilage in your knee that absorbs shock between the shin and thighbone—can tear even from minimal trauma, like twisting your knee while stepping out of a car. It increases knee OA risk in the next 10 years by six-fold.

    • Labral tear: The labrum—a protective ring of tissue lining the edge of the hip joint—can separate or pull away from the hip socket during a car accident, contact sports, or repetitive motions, like long-distance running or the twisting, pivoting motions in golf or softball. It may increase your risk of hip OA by 10% over a decade.

    • Rotator cuff tear: This common injury to the tendons surrounding the shoulder joint can happen due to gradual wear and tear or repeated overhead movements—like those practiced by weightlifters, tennis players, painters, and carpenters. About 12% to 14% of people with large to massive rotator cuff tears may develop shoulder OA as little as two years after repair.

    • Ankle sprain: Ankle OA is relatively rare, but when it does occur it’s almost always due to injury. Severe ankle sprains may lead to OA about 50% of the time. The timeframe is variable, but in some cases OA can develop in as little as three or four years.

    • Elbow overuse injury: Elbow OA is also pretty rare. But overuse injuries—such as the kind baseball pitchers often get—may increase the risk.

  • Trauma: If you place frequent or intense demands on your joints—maybe you’re a competitive athlete or a weekend warrior, or you have a job that’s physically demanding or requires repetitive motions—that can raise OA risk by causing trauma that speeds the wear and tear of the joint. Occupations involving frequent bending, squatting, heavy lifting, or stair climbing—such as construction, farming, bricklaying, plumbing, carpentry, and manufacturing—have been linked to OA risk.

  • Anatomy: The way you’re put together may mean you put more stress on your joints. If you’re “bow-legged” (or the opposite, “knock-kneed”), for example, load will be unevenly distributed on the knee, possibly paving the way for knee OA and making it harder to recover from a knee injury. A hip condition called femoroacetabular impingement—where the ball doesn’t fit well into the socket—can damage cartilage. And scoliosis, or poor spinal alignment, can stress the spine. Those with a disparity in leg lengths—of as little as a half inch—may be more likely to develop knee OA, perhaps due to the uneven load.

  • Weight gain: Studies have linked OA with being overweight. Greater body weight means more load on the weight-bearing joints—when you walk, a force of up to six times your body weight is exerted on your knees. In other words, when you lift one leg up to take a step, you’re transmitting six times your body weight onto the other leg. This may explain why overweight women have nearly four times the risk of knee OA, and overweight men five times. But people with obesity are also twice as likely as leaner folks to get hand OA, possibly because excess fat cells release inflammatory mediators that can affect the whole body, including in the joints. This low-grade inflammation may cause cartilage to break down faster, contributing to the progression of OA.

Do I Have the Symptoms of Osteoarthritis?

OA pain has been described in all sorts of ways. But it’s typically described as a dull, aching pain that becomes more constant over time, punctuated by episodes of more intense, sharper pain that can be difficult to cope with. It usually affects a joint on just one side of the body, and gets worse when you use that joint.

Osteoarthritis can happen in any joint, but these are the most common:

  • Hand: OA usually hits any of these three areas: the base of the thumb, the middle finger joint, and the joint closest to the fingertip. If you have hand arthritis, you may have a hard time with tasks that require you to use your grip—opening jars, turning doorknobs, buttoning your shirt, or holding a pen to sign your name.

  • Hip: The typical pain from hip OA shows up not just in the hip but also in the groin, front of the thigh, or buttock. That’s because the front of the hip joint (the part that wears out quicker) actually lies within the groin. Stiffness in the hip can make it difficult to walk, stand up, or bend down. Your hip may lock up during movement.

  • Knee: Knee pain may act up after running or long walks. It’s often triggered by going up or down stairs. These activities put weight on the joint, compressing the already narrowed joint space so bones get even closer together, which may trigger pain. Plus, the joint fluid and cartilage—degraded from OA—may not be providing enough cushion and shock absorption.

  • Lower back: Back pain might act up after prolonged sitting (which puts stress on the lower spine) or prolonged standing—you may notice it while you’re standing at the kitchen counter cooking dinner. Bone spurs on the spine may also compress the nerve, causing pain in the buttock.

  • Neck: You may have pain when you turn your head or bend your neck. And if bone spurs develop and press on the nerves, neck OA may cause pain elsewhere too, like in the shoulder, or deltoid.

  • Shoulder: You might find the pain happens every time you reach for something or raise your arm overhead. Because joint systems are connected, shoulder OA may also cause pain in the neck—if the neck pain gets worse when you raise your arm, shoulder OA is likely the culprit.

Another classic symptom is a stiffness in the affected joints that can make you feel like you’re moving in slow motion—especially in the morning for the first few minutes after you get out of bed. Your joints may also be tender to the touch, experience mild swelling, and be unable to move through their full range of motion.

And we already mentioned bone spurs—bony growths that form along the bone in response to the joint damage. Bone spurs feel like hard lumps under the skin, but unless you feel for them you probably won’t notice. They can happen in any joint, but are most noticeable in the hand, where they can look like swollen knuckles, but the “swelling” feels hard, not squishy. Bone spurs in the knee can cause crepitus, a grating sensation when you bend or extend your knee.

To recap, the early symptoms of OA can include:

  • Dull, achy joint pain that gets worse during or after activity, and typically affects a joint on just one side of the body

  • Stiffness for less than 30 minutes after waking in the morning

  • Tenderness

  • Reduced range of motion

  • Mild swelling

  • Bone spurs

  • Grating sensation

As OA symptoms progress over years—this is a slooow-moving disease—the pain may become sharper and more “mechanical” as cartilage wears completely away and bones rub against each other. When that happens, pain can be excruciating and will always happen with movement. And joints may crack and grind due to the roughness of the joint surface and the loss of smooth cartilage.

What’s the Difference Between Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Because osteoarthritis can feel a lot like rheumatoid arthritis (RA), it can be hard to tell them apart. But there are a few telltale signs of OA.

  • Way less inflammation. Both OA and RA involve inflammation, but with RA it’s a lot more severe. Why? Because OA and RA have very different causes. While OA results from the slow “wear and tear” of joint cartilage (which can trigger a downward spiral of joint damage and inflammation, like we already explained), RA is an autoimmune disease—meaning the immune system wigs out and starts firing missiles at the joint cells. The result can be severe joint swelling, redness, and warmth. You won’t get any of that with OA, though you may experience mild joint swelling.

  • Morning stiffness lasts less than 30 minutes. Both OA and RA can make you stiff and creaky in the morning. For those with OA, it may take only five or 10 minutes to loosen up and feel better, while for RA patients it takes longer—more than 30 minutes.

  • One joint on just one side of the body is affected. Unlike RA (which commonly affects the same joint on both sides of the body), OA typically affects a joint on one side or the other.

  • Knee, hip, back, or hand is affected. These are the most common joints where OA occurs. RA often starts in the hands or feet, and spreads to larger joints. RA never involves the lower back. And RA tends not affect the furthest finger joint (the one closest to the fingertip).

  • OA symptoms are just in the joint. RA can affect the whole body, causing fatigue and general malaise (when you feel bad all over).

  • Pain gets worse with movement. Most people with RA feel worse when they’re not moving. For people with OA, the reverse is true—activity triggers the pain.

  • Bone spurs can form. Those bony growths we mentioned earlier? Those are not seen in RA. With RA, you may notice swelling or even “nodules” caused by a buildup of inflammatory tissue—but these won’t harden like bone spurs.

  • Symptoms start when you’re older. RA often occurs in younger patients between the ages of 40 and 60. OA, on the other hand, usually doesn’t start until after age 50.

When Should I See a Doctor?

For mild or infrequent joint pain, you probably don’t need to rush out to a specialist, but you should mention it to your primary care physician at your next checkup.

However, if you have mystery joint pain for three-plus days, or several episodes within a month, or a sudden, dramatic change in your pain level (like going from a 1 or 2 on a zero-to-10 pain scale, to a 7 or 8 overnight) schedule an appointment with your doctor. Any of these could signal OA.

Another good reason to call up your doc: Your joint pain is keeping you from an activity you love (or you do it a lot less often than you used to)—often a telltale sign of OA.

And definitely book a visit if joint pain is accompanied by any of the following to rule out rheumatoid arthritis:

  • Swelling

  • Redness

  • Warmth

While there’s no way to stop OA, your doctor may be able to make treatment recommendations that slow it down, so an early diagnosis helps. The Arthritis Foundation recommends starting with your primary care doctor, who may refer you to an orthopedic specialist or a rheumatologist.

How Do Doctors Diagnose Osteoarthritis?

Diagnosing OA starts with your medical history—including your symptoms and how old you were when you started having them—and a physical exam.

During the exam, your doc will look at your joints and check for signs of inflammation (warmth, soft-tissue swelling), which could suggest a more inflammatory arthritis like rheumatoid. She’ll also use her fingers to feel for bone spurs if the joint is accessible—like in your hand or knee. And she’ll check your range of motion—by moving your joint while you keep your muscles relaxed (to rule out muscle pain as a cause).

After that, if your doctor feels more info is needed, she may recommend:

  • X-rays. These images can reveal if the space between the bones is getting narrower—a sign of cartilage loss. (However, nearly all adults over 60 will show some cartilage loss on an X-ray—so focusing on symptoms is more important.) X-rays are not necessary for this diagnosis, it's made clinically based on the history and exam.

  • MRI. A magnetic resonance imaging scan—MRI for short—usually isn’t needed, but it can provide more detailed images of tendons and surrounding tissues—useful if your doctor wants to check for a tear.

  • Lab tests. Analyzing your blood or joint fluid can rule out other causes of joint pain, such as rheumatoid arthritis or gout.

If lab tests rule out other disease—and you have symptoms and X-ray results consistent with OA—then OA is usually diagnosed.

What Is the Best Treatment for Osteoarthritis?

No treatment can reverse OA damage or regrow cartilage. But plenty of options can help you feel better, and even slow or prevent further damage. The best treatment for you will depend on how severe your OA is. Here are some treatments your physician might recommend, in rough order of least- to most-severe.

Lifestyle Changes for OA

Some of the most effective OA treatments—and likely the first thing your doctor will suggest—are changes that require no pharmaceutical or surgical interventions at all. Think:

  • Strength training: Research shows that strength training can reduce pain and improve function—increasing walking speed or making it easier to stand up from a chair, for example—in older adults with hip or knee OA. Strengthening muscles that stabilize and support the hips and knees takes some of the load off the worn-out joint and helps keep it aligned. Plus, you boost blood flow to the area, delivering nourishing oxygen and nutrients.

  • Weight loss: If you’re overweight, dropping as little as 5% to 10% of your body weight—10 to 20 pounds if you’re 200 pounds—can make a big difference in your pain level and even slow cartilage loss. Not only that, but because excess fat promotes inflammation, reducing fat stores may reduce inflammation in the affected joint, relieving pain.

  • Physical therapy: If you’re new to exercise, you may want to consider physical therapy—where a physical therapist can help you develop an exercise routine and work with you to fix muscle imbalances, so you can develop better movement patterns and greater control and stability in your joint.

Medications for Osteoarthritis

Medications can’t slow down your OA, but they can relieve the pain. You have options.

  • NSAIDs (OTC or Rx): Depending on your pain level, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may be taken daily or every once in a while, like before engaging in strenuous activities, for example. Your doctor may recommend over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription NSAIDs—but she’ll want to consider what other meds you’re on, what conditions you may have (if you have kidney or heart disease, NSAIDs are likely off the table), and your stomach’s sensitivity—since NSAIDs can cause gastrointestinal symptoms like stomach irritation and heart burn, and in rare cases gastral bleeding or peptic ulcer. There are tons of NSAIDs on the market. This list represents just a few.

    • Advil (ibuprofen)

    • Aleve (naproxen)

    • Bufferin (aspirin)

    • Celebrex (celecoxib)

    • Disalcid (salsalate)

  • Corticosteroids: Steroids injected directly into the joint, by a doctor or radiologist, can provide quick relief for OA pain, but can only be used every three to six months at the most. Steroids can help relieve pain by decreasing inflammation in and around the joint. They do carry risks for long-term treatment, but unlike NSAIDs will not cause kidney problems. So they may be a safer choice for people with kidney disease. However, they’re likely not an option for patients with diabetes, as they can raise blood sugar.

  • Viscosupplementation (hyaluronic acid): This is when your doctor injects a thick fluid called hyaluronic acid—a synthetic version of a molecule your body naturally produces, that can degrade from OA—into your joint to reduce pain. Restoring the joint’s hyaluronic acid level helps aid lubrication and shock absorption. Depending on the type of product you use, you may need one to five shots spread out over several weeks. Pain relief can take a few weeks to kick in, but once it does it can last for six months, or sometimes longer. When it wears off, you may return for another treatment. It is covered by Medicare.

Surgeries

If you have unrelenting pain every day, and you’ve exhausted nonsurgical options, you may be a candidate for surgery.

Joint replacement: Chances are, if you’re having surgery for OA, it’s a joint replacement. That’s when the damaged part of the joint (the ends of the bone) is removed and replaced with metal or plastic parts, creating a buffer between your bones so they no longer rub together. In general, joint replacements have a high rate of success—80% to 90% for hip and knee replacements—but the outcomes will depend on how severe your arthritis is and how fit and healthy you are going into surgery. On average, patients who undergo hip or knee replacement report a 50% improvement in function—going from a 30 or 40 (on a zero-to-100 scale) to an 80 or 90. For some patients, that can mean returning to a beloved activity, like golf or skiing. Don’t count on running or jumping again. But lower-impact activities, like tennis, golf, cycling, swimming, and even occasional light jogging, will probably be fine—especially if you used to participate in those activities before OA.

Expect to be in the hospital for a day or two. (Though, some treatment centers may release you the same day.) For many patients, pain subsides quickly and function improves in as little as one to two weeks. You may have to restrict your activities for a while, and you’ll do four to six weeks of physical therapy. But by about three months, you’ll likely be mostly recovered and able to do most activities.

Hip and knee replacements are the most common, though shoulders, finger joints, ankles, and elbows can be replaced, too.

  • Joint fusion: If knee replacement fails, or you have very severe foot, ankle, or spine arthritis, your doctor may recommend a fusion—when damaged surfaces of the bones are removed and the bones are joined by plates and screws until they grow (or “fuse”) together. Pain relief can be dramatic, but you lose mobility in the joint. Recovery can take several weeks to a year.

  • Osteotomy: Reserved for patients under 55 who are extremely active, an osteotomy involves surgically realigning the joint by removing or adding bone. These can be done for hip or knee OA, and only if the arthritis is isolated to one area of the joint. Recovery is longer—about seven to eight months, with the first six weeks on crutches—but the advantage is once you’re recovered, you have no restrictions.

Other Therapies That Can Help OA

There are a number of things you can do at home—in addition to meds—to help you feel your best. The range from capsaicin cream to Tai Chi and you can learn more about complementary therapies for OA here.

Does Osteoarthritis Have Serious Complications?

OA has been linked to higher risks of the following:

  • Falls: OA can make it hard to move and it also can impair balance, increasing fall risk. In one study, people with hip or knee OA experienced 50% more falls than those without hip/knee OA—and the risk went up with the number of joints affected. Another good reason to take up Tai Chi, which has been shown to improve stability and balance, reducing fall risk.

  • Gout: OA and gout (a form of inflammatory arthritis that’s very painful) often go together, though researchers aren’t sure which causes the other. OA joint damage may promote the uric acid crystals characteristic of gout. Or the crystals may cause inflammation, making joints susceptible to OA.

  • Tears: A tear may be the culprit behind OA, but OA can cause tears, too. As bones get closer together and develop bone spurs, they may fray tendons and lead to tears.

  • Pinched nerve: Bone spurs in the spine can narrow the space where your nerves travel, pinching nerves and causing pain.

What’s Life Like for People With Osteoarthritis?

Yes, OA is very common. But that’s no reason to shrug off the effects of the pain, which can be debilitating and seriously impact your quality of life. Here are a few of the common ways that can happen.

Activities of Daily Living (ADL)

Because OA can impair joint function, simple tasks can get a lot harder—like housecleaning, preparing a meal, or taking stairs. Researchers call these tasks activities of daily living, or ADLs. Some examples:

  • Housework: Pace yourself. Don’t dedicate a whole day to chores. Break it up. Then pick the right tool. If hand OA makes it hard to grip things—wear a sock on your hand to dust instead of gripping a rag.

  • Stairs: If going up and down stairs is painful (as it often is with knee OA), try the two-feet, one-step approach: Take one step at a time, leading with the affected leg on the way down, and the unaffected leg on the way up.

  • Walking: Try a walking aid like a cane. It may be the difference between getting around or being stuck at home. A folding cane can be stored in a bag or purse, so you have it on hand just in case.

  • Bending down: With hip OA, bending or kneeling down (and getting back up) can be difficult. Hold onto something sturdy, like stable furniture or a four-pod walker or cane—and use your arm to pull yourself back up.

Sleep

About 70% of people with OA experience sleep disturbances, like trouble falling or staying asleep or waking up earlier than you want. Pain can keep you from getting comfortable or wake you in the middle of the night. Worse: Because sleep helps regulate the central nervous system, insufficient shuteye can make you more sensitive to pain. So the pain-sleep problem becomes a vicious cycle.

Heat therapy before bed, a quality mattress, and strategically placed pillows—like a wedge pillow behind your back or a pillow under your knees—can all help. And remember good sleep habits: Limit caffeine, have a sleep routine, and power down your phone, tablet, and computer well before bed.

Sex Life

In one survey, 67% of arthritis patients awaiting joint replacement reported pain and stiffness interfered with their sex life. (After surgery, 90% of the patients reported their sex lives had improved.) But sex can actually be great for OA because it gets you moving, and we know movement is healthy for your joints. If you are recovering from joint surgery, be sure to talk to your doctor about whether it’s safe to resume sexual activity.

When you do return to intimacy, try a warm shower beforehand to soothe your joints and help you relax. And try different positions—sometimes that makes all the difference. If you have knee OA, try being on the bottom so you can keep your knees straight, or lie on your sides facing each other. For hip OA, try having sex in a spoon position with your partner behind you. Or prop your lower back with a pillow to reduce pressure on your spine and hips.

Mental/Emotional Health

Chronic OA pain, the limits it can put on you, and fears about falling and getting hurt can all take a psychological toll. Maybe that’s why one in five adults with OA have anxiety and depression, with those who have the highest pain levels most likely to suffer. A therapist may be able to help.

Research shows that a type of talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—which helps you become more aware of negative thinking and respond to stress in a more effective way—can improve pain in OA patients. Ask your doctor or your health insurance company for a referral.

Can You Prevent Osteoarthritis?

You can’t fully prevent your joints from wearing. But you can reduce stress on your joints to prevent OA or delay its onset.

  • Exercise (but not too hard): People who do moderate exercise (versus very vigorous exercise or no exercise at all) tend to have the lowest risk of OA, research shows. In one study of over 100,000 subjects, researchers found that hip and/or knee OA occurred in 13% of competitive runners (pro runners or those who participated in international events), 3.5% of recreational runners, and 10% of sedentary nonrunners. High-volume or very intense running may overstress the joints in the long term, while moderate running protects them.

  • Use a lumbar pillow / take breaks from sitting: When you’re seated, you put pressure on the joints in your lower spine—because you lose the natural curve you have when you’re in a neutral position, like standing or lying down. Lumbar support can help re-create that curve, relieving the stress from your spine. Another strategy: Get up and walk around once in a while.

  • Keep a healthy weight: Extra weight puts stress on the weight-bearing joints of the hips, knees, and ankles. Plus, excess fat promotes inflammation, which may cause cartilage to erode faster and contribute to the progression of OA.

  • Pay attention to pain: A common knee injury in older adults is a meniscus root tear—a tear at the back of the meniscus which, if left untreated, can progress OA and increase the chances of needing a knee replacement. But if you have the tear repaired (via a simple surgery), that risk is largely mitigated. The problem? These tears can be subtle and easily missed. If you notice pain in the back of the knee, especially when squatting, and you’re concerned, talk to your doctor.

The Orgs You Need to Know

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—Osteoarthritis: For research junkies, this is your source for news and information about arthritis statistics and research in the United States. This site also has tips for improving your quality of life with arthritis and can help you find the right to provider to help with treatment.

Arthritis Foundation: Think of this as your go-to for all things arthritis, including a joint-by-joint breakdown of how arthritis affects different parts of your body and a guide to the types of medications your doctor might prescribe. You’ll also find treatment insight and tips for healthy living.

National Institute on Aging: Under the umbrella of the National Institutes of Health, this page offers tips on how to safely add arthritis-friendly exercise into your regular routine. You’ll find insight on everything from which exercises will work best for your body to what type of sneakers to buy.

Jerilyn Covert
Meet Our Writer
Jerilyn Covert

Jerilyn Covert is a writer, editor, and copy editor with 15 years of publishing experience. She’s written hundreds of articles for Men’s Health (where she was an editor for more than 10 years), Women’s Health, Runner’s World, ONE37pm, Whiskey Advocate, Silver Sneakers, and many more. She’s insatiably curious and loves interviewing people who know a lot more than she does. She shares their insights and advice so others can use them to improve their lives.