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What is Osteoarthritis? Signs, Symptoms, and Causes

June 9th, 2016 | 3 min. read

By Rob S Williams, MD



Do you experience aches, pains, or swelling in your joints? You may have osteoarthritis, or OA. OA is a progressive disease of the joints caused by the degeneration of cartilage between bones. 


OA happens gradually. In young, healthy joints, smooth articular cartilage covers the ends of bones in your joints. This cartilage cushions the joint, protecting the bones from grinding when the joint is bent and straightened.

Over time, this articular cartilage wears away through normal daily use. The formerly smooth cartilage becomes frayed and rough, creating friction and making joint motion more difficult. Sometimes, broken bits of cartilage can float loose and get stuck, creating a "creakiness" when you use the joint.

Inflammation, swelling, and aching can result. In worse-case scenarios, the cartilage wears away altogether, leaving the joint without any cushion at all. Doctors sometimes refer to this painful scenario as "bone on bone."

Who gets OA?

Millions of people experience OA. Osteoarthritis is the most common degenerative joint condition, affecting about 27 million people in the U.S. alone. Most OA sufferers are middle-aged or older.

However, some athletes who've put their joints through significant wear and tear may experience symptoms of OA earlier. Baseball or volleyball players, for example, may find themselves dealing with shoulder arthritis while they're still fairly young. 

The need for a total knee replacement surgery is also not unheard of in athletes who may have damaged their knees repeatedly in the course of their sports careers.

Traumatic accidents that damage the joints can also increase the risk of developing osteoarthritis.

Risk Factors for OA

Do you meet any of the following criteria? If so, you may be at risk for OA.


  • Middle-aged or older (age 50 and up).

  • Female. Women are more likely to get OA than men.

  • Family history of OA. If your parents or grandparents had OA, you may be likely to inherit the condition.

  • Obesity. Extra weight means more stress on your hip, knee, and foot joints; being overweight can also contribute to inflammation.

  • Previous injury to the joint, for example, traumatic accidents, old sports injuries, fracturesknee cartilage tears, or rotator cuff tears.

  • Occupation. If you work in a job with repetitive tasks that stress your joints, you may be at risk for wearing down your cartilage in those joints.

  • Bone deformity. If you are born with a joint or cartilage defect, you may have an increased risk.


Osteoarthritis vs. rheumatoid arthritis 

People sometimes confuse OA with rheumatoid arthritis, or RA. Though both are forms of arthritis with some common symptoms, their causes differ, as do their treatment. Briefly, the main differences between OA and RA are:

Causes and Onset

  • OA is caused by physical wear-and-tear and takes years to develop.
  • RA is an autoimmune disease, meaning the body's immune system attacks the joints. Onset can be sudden.

Risk Factors/Age

  • OA is common and mainly affects middle-aged and older people.
  • RA can happen at any age; even small children can be affected.

Rheumatoid arthritis has some symptoms in common with OA. However, pain and inflammation are usually symmetrical (not so with OA) and accompanied by a general feeling of fatigue, illness, or malaise.

If your symptoms are more localized and if you feel otherwise well, you are more likely to have OA. (If you think you may have rhematoid arthritis, see a rheumatologist for diagnosis.)


Signs & symptoms of Osteoarthritis

OA develops gradually over time. It tends to start with one joint or set of joints on one side of the body. Symptoms include:

  • Bumps or nodules. You may notice a deformity of the joint — bone spurs or bony growths that you can see or feel under the skin. (These are particularly common on fingers and toes, at the knuckles.)

  • Grinding. When you use your joint, you may feel or hear a grinding or crackling. (For example, in the knees when going up or down stairs or squatting.)

  • Loss of flexibility/limited motion. Range of motion may be restricted. For example, if you have shoulder arthritis, you may have trouble raising your arms all the way. If you have arthritis in your back, your ability to bend over or twist may be limited. If you have arthritis in the hip, knee, or ankle, you may begin to limp. 

  • Pain. OA joint pain ranges from moderate aches to severe pain that can happen either during or after movement. Many people experience worse discomfort at the end of the day. Weather also plays a role; pain may be worse when conditions are damp or cold.

  • Stiffness. You may notice joint stiffness, particularly in the morning for about one hour, or after being inactive for long periods. Getting up from a lying or sitting position may be difficult.

  • Tenderness. Your affected joint may feel sore to the touch when you apply pressure to it. You may also feel warmth over the joint area.

Osteoarthritis can affect any joint in the body. Joints commonly affected are:

  • ankles
  • back
  • elbows
  • feet and toes
  • hands and fingers
  • hips
  • knees
  • neck
  • shoulders
  • wrists


OA is a long-term, incurable disease; no doctor can reverse its effects, but an orthopedic specialist can help you learn about strategies and options for managing your symptoms.

Most people with OA seek relief through some combination of exercise and medicine. Gentle, low-impact movement combined with over-the-counter or prescription medications can make a difference in your pain and mobility.

Depending on your age, general health, and symptoms, surgery may also be beneficial. Talking to an orthopedist can help you decide if surgery is right for you — and if so, whether you'll want to consider a surgical intervention now or postpone until later.

Surgical procedures for treating OA include:

  • arthroscopic surgery (knee, shoulder, wrist, ankle)
  • computer-assisted surgery (hip, knee)
  • joint fusion (with or without bone growth stimulation therapy) 
  • joint replacement (for example, total knee replacement or hip replacement)

If you have osteoarthritis, you have options. An orthopedist can help you create a plan for managing your OA. Give Coastal Orthopedics located in Corpus Christi, TX a call and ask for a consultation. Telephone: 361.994.1166.
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Rob S Williams, MD

Dr. Williams has been practicing orthopedic surgery in Corpus Christi since 1998. After graduating from Texas Tech hereceived his medical degree from the University of Texas at San Antonio. At the prestigious Campbell Clinic located at the University of Tennessee, Dr. Williams completed not only an Orthopedic Surgery Residency, but an additional year of Fellowship Training in Spine Surgery. Dr. Williams is dedicated to creating an excellent patient experience in the office or in the surgery suite.