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Questions and Answers (Q&A)

Q: What Is Osteoarthritis?

Answer: Osteoarthritis, or OA, is a disease that causes the cartilage in your joints to break down. Cartilage is a smooth substance that protects the ends of your bones and helps your joints move. The break down of the smooth substance called cartilage causes joint pain and stiffness. Osteoarthritis is one of the most common diseases in people. It is estimated that nearly 21 million people in the U.S. have osteoarthritis. It is also estimated that half of all those who have osteoarthritis do not know that the pain and stiffness they are experiencing are symptoms of osteoarthritis.

Although the term arthritis means joint inflammation, there is little inflammation in the joints of those who have osteoarthritis. Many health care professionals also refer to osteoarthritis as degenerative joint disease because it seems to be related to age and the wear and tear the joints experience over the years.

Costs: Each year, arthritis results in 44 million outpatient visits, 750,000 hospitalizations, estimated medical care costs of more than $22 billion, and estimated total costs (medical care and lost productivity) of $82 billion.

Q: What Happens in Osteoarthritis (Anatomy)?

Answer: Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage of a joint (which normally cushions the joint and protects it from impact) breaks down. In normal joints, the cartilage covers the end of each bone and enables the joint to move easily and comfortably. The breakdown of the rubbery cartilage occurs in phases. First, the cartilage begins to change with age and with use. With age, the cartilage loses its elasticity and is more likely to be damaged by injury or excess use. Over time, the cartilage wears away and the bones may rub against one another. Bones may even start to grow too thick on the ends where they meet to make a joint, and bits of cartilage and bone may loosen and get in the way of movement. This can cause pain, joint swelling and stiffness.

Osteoarthritis can range from mild to severe. The pain associated with osteoarthritis can be significant and is usually made worse by movement. Osteoarthritis can affect any joint. Some of the more common joints affected are the knee, hip, hands, feet and spine. Some of the more commons signs and symptoms of osteoarthritis include:

* Joint pain and stiffness. Long periods of rest or using a joint too long or too hard can make pain and stiffness worse.

* Joint swelling or tenderness.

* A grinding sensation when the joint is moved.

* Numbness or tingling in an arm or leg, which can happen if the arthritis has caused bone changes that are putting pressure on a nerve, for example, in the neck or lower back.

* Bony enlargements in the middle and end joints of the fingers (which may or may not be painful)

Q: What Are the Target Groups and Risk Factors?


Osteoarthritis does not usually affect people under the age of 45. Osteoarthritis is the biggest cause of disability for both men and men who are over 65.


Up to age 45 Osteoarthritis is more common in men; beyond that age, it is more common in women.


If you weigh more than you should, your weight bearing joints are under extra pressure. Being overweight also increases the chances of osteoarthritis worsening once it has developed.

Joint injury

A major injury or operation on a joint may lead to osteoarthritis at that site in later life. There are some abnormalities of the joint that you can be born with which can lead to osteoarthritis later in life. Very hard repetitive activity may injure joints. This explains why osteoarthritis is more common in people with physically demanding jobs.


There is one common form of osteoarthritis that strongly runs in families called nodal osteoarthritis. This particularly affects the hands of middle-aged women. In knee and hip osteoarthritis, heredity plays a smaller but significant role.

Q: How is Osteoarthritis Diagnosed (Diagnostic Testing)?

Answer: An individual must seek the diagnosis of a physician. After a physical examination and a discussion of the symptoms, the physician may also recommend X-rays to confirm the presence of osteoarthritis.

It is usually the symptoms and signs mentioned above which lead your doctor to diagnose osteoarthritis. When your joints are examined, your doctor can feel the bony swelling and see any restricted movement of the joints. There is no blood test for osteoarthritis, although blood tests are sometimes done to help rule out other types of arthritis. The x-ray is the most useful test to confirm osteoarthritis. Often it will show the space between the bones narrowing as the cartilage thins, and changes in the bone such as spurs.

Q: What Can I Do to Promote Health?

Answer: Although there is no cure



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