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Osteoarthritis FAQs

What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritisis a disease that affects the joints and surrounding tissues. It used to be considered as simply the wear and tear of ageing, but increasingly scientists view osteoarthritis as an active disease that involves inflammation and other processes that destroy the joint. Over time there is gradual breakdown of cartilage - the cushion that covers the tips of bones, allowing joints to move easily. When cartilage becomes thin, bones rub against each other - causing the stiffness, pain and difficulty in movement that are hallmarks of osteoarthritis.

Who gets osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis in the UK. While women tend to have more osteoarthritis problems than men do, everyone's risk increases as they get older.

What causes osteoarthritis?

While there isn't any single cause of osteoarthritis, there are several risk factors associated with it. These include advancing age, excess weight and obesity, and history of joint injury and/or overuse. Family history of osteoarthritis is also a risk factor, demonstrating that genetics play a part and some people are more vulnerable to the condition.

What are the symptoms of arthritis?

The knees, hips, fingers, neck and lower back are most commonly affected by osteoarthritis. Most often the disease develops gradually, starting as soreness or stiffness that seems more of a nuisance than a medical concern. Pain may be moderate, intermittent and not interfere with your day-to-day existence. However in time it may interfere with your everyday functioning and quality of life.

The most common signs of osteoarthritis are:

  • Joint soreness after overuse or long periods of inactivity
  • Stiffness after periods of rest that goes away quickly when you're active again
  • Morning stiffness, which usually lasts no more than 30 minutes
  • Swelling and eventually distortion of the joint
  • Pain caused by the weakening of muscles surrounding the joint due to inactivity
  • Joint pain that is usually less in the morning and worse in the evening after a day's activity
  • Difficulty with posture and walking due to pain and stiffness

How is osteoarthritis diagnosed?

Your doctor will look at your medical history and carry out a physical examination. Blood tests or X-rays are not normally needed to diagnose osteoarthritis, unless the doctor needs to rule out other conditions such as broken bones or rheumatoid arthritis. However X-rays are useful to assess the extent of damage to the joints, especially when the hips, knees or spine are involved or when surgery is being considered. You may be referred to an osteoarthritis specialist called a rheumatologist. Other doctors who treat osteoarthritis include orthopaedic surgeons, physiotherapists and occupational therapists.

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