What is osteoarthritis?

By Meghan Betts

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative condition that usually gets worse over time. As the cartilage that covers the ends of the bones in the joints degrades (breaks down), the bones start to rub together causing pain and swelling (See Figure 1). As joints become stiff there is a loss of motion that combined with the pain makes performing everyday activities difficult.


Figure 1: Difference between a normal bone joint and osteoarthritis. Image sourced from AIHW (http://www.aihw.gov.au/osteoarthritis/what-is-osteoarthritis/)

Osteoarthritis mostly affects the the hands, spine, hips, knees and ankles, and usually develops in joints that are injured due to repeated overuse. It is the predominant condition leading to hip and knee replacement surgery in Australia, with an 29% rise in the rate of total knee replacements and a 31% rise in hip replacements occurring over the last ~10 years.



Although the symptoms of osteoarthritis can vary between people, and over time for the affected person, the main symptoms include:

  • Joint pain (particularly pain that worsens following exercise or immobility)
  • Joint stiffness
  • Swelling
  • Limited joint movement


Who gets Osteoarthritis?

An estimated 1 in 11 Australians (approximately 2.1 million people in 2014-2015) are believed to have osteoarthritis, with approximately two thirds of these being female.


Risk factors

There are a number of risk factors that contribute to the onset and progression of osteoarthritis including:

  • Being female
  • Joint injury or trauma (i.e. dislocation or fracture)
  • Joint misalignment
  • Repetitive joint-loading tasks (such as kneeling or squatting)
  • Being overweight
  • Family history of osteoarthritis



Osteoarthritis is usually diagnosed through a physical examination of your symptoms and the affected joints. X-rays may be used to observe any narrowing or changes to the shape of the joint but cannot determine the amount of pain or problems you experience in this joint. Blood tests may be used to rule out other types of arthritis.


Treatment for osteoarthritis

Treatment options depend on which joints are affected and to what severity. It may take some trials before you find the best treatment for you as an individual. Example treatments include:

  • Analgesics (pain relief such as paracetamol)
  • Topical creams
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Exercise and physical therapy
  • Joint splinting
  • Joint replacement surgery if all other therapies are no longer helping


Useful resources





Arthritis Australia








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