What Is Osteoarthritis? Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, and More - Brace Direct

What Is Osteoarthritis? Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, and More

Several disorders affect the bone and joints. One of the most common types is osteoarthritis. So what is osteoarthritis? Keep reading to learn more!

What is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis (OA) is a highly prevalent chronic joint disorder that affects about 32.5 million adults in the United States. Also known as wear and tear arthritis, it occurs due to the breakdown of cartilage that cushions the affected joint. OA can affect almost any joint, although some are more common than others. 

OA causes pain, stiffness, or tenderness in the joint that affects your activities of daily living. The joint will have less range of motion due to swelling. Bones spurs in the joint can give a grating sensation, popping, or cracking. 

Reports found the global prevalence of OA to be almost 23% in individuals above 40. A study suggests that symptomatic OA is more common in aged women (13% prevalence) than men (10% prevalence).

Joints Affected By Osteoarthritis

The degenerative joint disease can affect any joint of the body. However, the following joints are most commonly affected:

Hand Osteoarthritis

OA of the hands and wrist is frustrating as it hinders people from performing daily activities. Research shows that pain and disability associated with hand OA cause functional limitations. Heredity factors may play a role in the occurrence of hand OA. 

OA can develop in the complex wrist joint. Radiocarpal and wrist osteoarthritis manifests as wrist pain and is diagnosed via radiographs. Thumb and wrist pain makes gripping and holding things a troublesome task. 

Those who want to regain their hand strength can try a thumb splint. A thumb joint splint imparts pain relief and allows you to grasp objects better.

Knee Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis in the knee is the most common type of OA. According to a 2017 study, the prevalence of knee OA has doubled since the mid-20th century. Obesity and old age are significant risk factors for osteoarthritis knee.

Arthritis can have an impact on three different compartments of the knee:

  • Medial joint¬†
  • Lateral joint¬†
  • Patellofemoral joint (knee cap)

Like OA in other joints, knee OA has osteophyte formation, articular damage, and subchondral bone sclerosis. You can also observe the formation of cysts (subchondral) in advanced cases of knee OA. According to a study, age (old), weight (obesity and overweight), and repetitive trauma are considered evident risk factors for the degenerative condition of the knee.

Knee pain arising from the condition is debilitating for many patients. However, in some, the arthritis is asymptomatic and unnoticeable. This type of arthritis can have severe consequences, but primary care can manage it.

It is seen in general that women experience more severe forms of knee OA. A study highlighting sex differences in OA concluded that women are at a greater risk of developing knee OA and have a more severe type of condition. 

Various knee braces can help with OA knee pain. A popular brace is an unloader brace, which helps realign your knee. 

Shoulder Osteoarthritis

Persistent shoulder pain can be due to underlying OA, especially in old adults. The glenohumeral joint (the anatomical name for the shoulder joint) accounts for 2 to 5% of all shoulder pain cases. The pathology of shoulder OA is multifactorial. 

Spine Osteoarthritis

This wear-and-tear arthritis can also affect the spinal vertebrae and lead to upper/lower back discomfort. Lumbar spine OA is a common malady that leads to degeneration of the spine and a narrowing of disc space. People suffering from spine OA experience chronic low back pain that is severely debilitating. 

Neck pain can ensue when the cervical vertebrae are affected by arthritis. The damage to the vertebral joints can result in forming bony spicules called osteophytes. These osteophytes can impinge on the nerves leading to nerve symptoms (pain, numbness, burning, tingling, etc.).

Hip Osteoarthritis

The hip joint is a crucial joint involved in weight-bearing. OA of the hip can limit motion and seriously reduce the quality of life, especially in the elderly. Research shows that the condition is highly prevalent in the old population. The hip is a site for great biomechanical stress; thus, it is more prone to damage. Repetitive stress at the joint surface causes changes that constitute OA. 

Patients can also develop hip OA as a consequence of some underlying condition. Certain conditions, such as trauma, osteonecrosis, sepsis, and congenital hip disease, can give rise to secondary hip OA. Genetic factors play an essential role in the occurrence of the disease.

Some patients with advanced disease may also complain of muscle weakness due to chronic hip OA.

Osteoarthritis vs. Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)

Another type of chronic joint disorder that mimics OA in manifestations is rheumatoid arthritis. RA is an auto-immune condition that affects various joints in the body. 

An auto-immune disease develops when the body’s defense system (immune system) mistakes its cells for foreign bodies and attacks them via antibodies. 

Both OA and RA affect the joints, causing degeneration and inflammation of joints and pain. However, there are some evident differences between the two types of arthritis:


RA can occur at any age, whereas OA develops in later stages of life. Rheumatoid arthritis diagnoses arise at an earlier age. 


RA generally targets smaller joints and occurs on both sides of the body, whereas OA symptoms are in one set of joints. 

Disease Progression 

OA has a slow progression and takes years to worsen. On the other hand, rheumatoid arthritis is relatively rapid and may aggravate within a few months.

Osteoarthritis Causes and Risk Factors

Osteoarthritis occurs when cartilage loses its elasticity and becomes stiff. The stiff cartilage is more prone to damage and breakdown. The exact underlying cause for this abrupt wear and tear of the joint cartilage is unknown, but certain risk factors are associated with OA. 


Inherited defects in a gene responsible for cartilage production may cause defective cartilage creation. This cartilage is more prone to wear and tear. Individuals born with joint deformities and abnormal spine conditions are at a higher risk of developing OA later in life.


Being overweight increases your chances of OA, as obesity is a notable risk factor. Numerous studies have highlighted the link between obesity and arthritis. 

Obesity also worsens OA symptoms. It is not only a causative agent but also a penetrating factor for arthritis. Studies suggest that as high as 69% of all knee arthroplasties occur due to obesity.

Thus, obese people with joint deformities must try to lose weight to keep OA at bay.

Overuse and Injury 

Excessive joint usage makes you more prone to developing OA as you grow old. Injury (such as sports injury) to the knee or hip joint can result in cartilage damage and OA. 

Osteoarthritis Symptoms 

OA symptoms depend upon the region/joint affected. However, the following symptoms are common to all joints:

Joint Pain and Tenderness

Joint pain and tenderness is the most telltale sign of OA. Research suggests that synovial joint tissues release certain chemicals that promote the destruction of the joint and precipitate pain by directly activating the pain receptors.

A large number of patients complain of having tender joints that are painful to touch. 

Joint Stiffness

Knee OA patients very quickly note stiffness in the joint and loss of flexibility. The level of stiffness increases with the progression of the disease, with patients experiencing extreme dynamic knee joint stiffness with advanced knee OA. Some individuals experience stiffness while walking, while generalized stiffness is a problem for others.


The release of pro-inflammatory cytokines is what constitutes OA, but inflammation perpetuates osteoarthritis. Modern studies reveal that inflammation may also be a triggering factor for the occurrence of OA. 

Low-grade inflammation is present in all knee OA cases and is the main target of treatment therapies.

Reduced Range of Motion 

A major cause of disability in OA patients is a reduced range of motion. Knee OA patients cannot flex the knee, while hip OA individuals struggle to extend and rotate the hip. Adjustable range of motion braces can be beneficial in improving range of motion. You can also get a knee brace wrap for better knee joint movement.

Bone Spurs (Osteophytes)

A significant feature of osteoarthritis is the formation of bone spurs or osteophytes. Degeneration of the joint leads to the production of extra lumps of bone or bone spurs. 

Radiological evidence suggests that bone spurs develop at the joint margins and cartilage-bone interlinking areas in OA patients. These bone spurs are usually asymptomatic and do not cause any pain.


Many patients complain of bone crackling sounds, known as crepitus. They can hear these clicking or popping sounds when moving the joint. 

Osteoarthritis Diagnosis 

Diagnosis is made based on presenting history and the findings of the radiographical analysis. It can be challenging to diagnose OA in the initial stages before the occurrence of any symptoms, but an X-ray or MRI can diagnose OA. 

Blood tests rule out RA. A doctor may also do synovial fluid analysis to check for any underlying cause of joint inflammation, like infection or gout.

Osteoarthritis Treatment

While you can not help risk factors like heredity or age, several measures can help prevent or get relief from OA symptoms. OA treatment relies on symptomatic treatment of the condition and halting the disease progression. 

Medications, lifestyle changes, and corticosteroid injections can play an essential role in alleviating symptoms. If these do not help, surgery can be performed as a last resort if the condition significantly limits function and mobility.


Patients can take different varieties of OTC medicines to get pain relief. Oral analgesics (ibuprofen, acetaminophen, naproxen, etc.) can reduce pain intensity. Patients with severe pain may be prescribed oral corticosteroids such as cortisone to manage pain and inflammation induced by OA. 

Antidepressant duloxetine is also given in some cases to relieve musculoskeletal pain. Oral medications can be paired with topical painkillers to get better results. Topical creams and patches can work for many. However, a steroid injection at the painful site effectively removes inflammation and brings relief to harrowing scenarios.

Lifestyle Modification 

OA is a chronic condition that you can stop from progressing but is not cured completely. Certain lifestyle modifications can be very beneficial in preventing the disease from advancing and reverting the symptoms.

Obesity and OA are directly linked; therefore, losing weight can take the burden off your joints. The down gradation of symptoms is most notable in hip and knee OA. Those struggling to walk can wrap up an adjustable knee brace for joint support. 

Obese individuals find it challenging to find braces and support devices that fit their size. Such individuals can take benefit from the plus-size knee brace for osteoarthritis. 

Hot/Cold Therapy 

Alternating hot and cold therapy is an effective maneuver in subsiding OA pain. Hot compression of the joint for 15 minutes releases the taut muscles, while cold application reduces inflammation in the site. Both procedures help in alleviating pain and inflammation. 

Physical Therapy 

The hands of a professional massage therapist can bring about a great deal of pain relief. Physical therapy is a non-invasive procedure that improves OA symptoms by reducing inflammation/swelling and improving blood flow. Systematic reviews suggest physical therapy interventions and weight loss can benefit OA patients.


Physical activity carries a vital role in the development of osteoarthritis. Regular exercise for 20-30 minutes can relieve stiffness in the joints and improve the range of motion. 

Those wanting a better range of motion can use adjustable range of motion (ROM) knee braces during exercise sessions. 

Individuals with hand and wrist osteoarthritis find it hard to grip, which can hinder them from exercising. By using thumb ring braces, patients can exercise and relieve stiffness.


Injection therapy can help relieve pain and discomfort from OA for several weeks. As there is a risk of further joint damage with this type of treatment, you can only get three to four steroid injections a year. 


If OA inhibits you from performing day-to-day activities, your doctor may recommend joint replacement surgery. The procedure works by removing parts or the entire damaged cartilage from the joint and replacing it with a prosthesis or artificial joint. 


Osteoarthritis is a painful degenerative joint disease, but it doesn’t have to keep you from doing what you love. There are many braces and treatments that can maintain your flexibility and reduce your pain.