How does osteoarthritis affect the body?

Diana Meeks
Diana Meeks on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Family Practitioner

Besides deterioration of cartilage between bones, osteoarthritis can affect the body in other ways. When the body tries to repair tissue damage in a particular joint, it will trigger the growth of bone, cartilage, and tissues. This growth actually can increase the size of the joint. In the back, for instance, this enlargement can actually lead to weakened limbs because the extra bone is now pressing on nerves. The disorder may also affect ligaments causing them to extend beyond their intended capacity and resulting in stiffness and inflexibility.

Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis in humans, and is basically due to the wear and tear of joints. Osteoarthritis of the knee is caused by wear and tear of the knee, and is characterized by joint narrowing and bone spur formation. The course of progression is not very predictable. You may have mild osteoarthritis of the knee for decades and which never progresses, or it may progress in a few years and require a joint replacement. Activities that can injure the knee will hasten the progression.

Osteoarthritis can also occur in the hand and spine. In osteoarthritis of the hand, the number one joint involved is the thumb. Half of patients over the age of 50 will have evidence of osteoarthritis of the spine in x-rays.

Dr. Scott D. Martin, MD
Orthopedic Surgeon

Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis. It is a disease that causes the breakdown of articular cartilage, the tissue that covers and protects the ends of bones. Arthritis can appear in any joint, but the knee is particularly vulnerable because it is a weight-bearing joint that is subject to daily wear and tear as well as sudden injury.

Why do some people get osteoarthritis while others don't? In part, it's genetic. If your parents or grandparents had arthritis, you are at increased risk of developing it yourself. Other factors come into play as well; excess weight and demanding physical activity can both increase your risk of developing osteoarthritis in your knees. Repetitive impact loading activities such as running can also accelerate cartilage wear.

Cartilage is about 75 percent water. It compresses under the pressure of each step and resumes its original thickness when the force is released. When articular cartilage breaks down, the result is pain and disability. One in three people over age 62 has some amount of osteoarthritis in one or both knees.

Early in the process of knee osteoarthritis, the space between your tibia and femur decreases as the cartilage wears away. Once the cartilage disappears, bone rubs on bone, causing intense pain and often the formation of bone spurs around the joint. For many people with osteoarthritis, pain tends to worsen as muscles tire during the day, losing the stress dampening effect of the muscles.

You can also develop osteoarthritis in the hip joint. This condition begins with a small amount of cartilage disintegration, resulting in some local inflammation. The process continues as the cartilage erodes and bone spurs form. Symptoms of hip osteoarthritis include pain in the groin or inner thigh, pain when you pivot or rotate the hip inward and stiffness after inactivity and first thing in the morning.

Dr. Kevin J. Soden, MD
Family Practitioner

Osteoarthritis is the most common "arthritis" or inflammation of the knee joint and is usually caused by wear and tear over many years of use.

Osteoarthritis is an inflammation and deterioration of the joints—usually both the cartilage and the bone just under the cartilage (called the subchondral bone). Osteoarthritis is often accompanied by pain. In osteoarthritis of the knee, there is an inflammatory process going on in which your body's immune and other cells try to destroy the cells that try to repair the damage.

The knee is the largest weight-bearing joint in the body and therefore most commonly affected by osteoarthritis. Affected knees may be stiff, swollen and painful, making it hard to walk, climb, sit down in and get up out of chairs, and get into the bathtub. If not treated, osteoarthritis in the knees can lead to disability. Medications, losing weight, exercise and walking aids can reduce pain and disability. In severe cases, knee-replacement surgery may be helpful.

The disease often affects both knees and causes most problems after the sufferer reaches his or her late 50s. A previous injury or operation may cause osteoarthritis in only one knee. Sometimes there is no obvious cause. Pain is usually felt at the front and sides of the knee.

Osteoarthritis of the knee is more common in women than in men. Obesity and having osteoarthritis of the hand with nodes increase the risk of osteoarthritis of the knee in women.

You may develop osteoarthritis in other areas as well:

  • Osteoarthritis of the foot primarily affects the joint at the base of the big toe. Over time, the toe may become bent and develop painful bunions. The joint also may become stiff, making the joint rigid and walking difficult.
  • Osteoarthritis of the hands is much more common among Caucasians than among other ethnic groups.
  • Osteoarthritis of the fingers is the one type of the disease that seems to be hereditary. Osteoarthritis of the fingers mainly affects women, especially after menopause. It primarily affects the joints at the end of the fingers and the joint at the base of the thumb. When the condition first appears, which tends to be when the woman is in her 40s or 50s, these joints can be red, swollen, and tender.
  • Osteoarthritis of the hip may affect one or both hips and can cause pain, stiffness and severe disability. Hip pain is felt mostly when the hip has to bear weight. The pain is felt mainly in the front of the groin, but sometimes around the side and front of the thigh and the buttock. Sometimes the pain radiates down to the knee. In affected hip joints, the range of motion is reduced and painful.
  • Osteoarthritis of the spine is called spondylosis and is found mostly in the neck and the back. The condition is commonly seen in x-rays and rarely causes problems such as pain and stiffness in the spine. Indeed, most back pain is not caused by osteoarthritis of the spine.
Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

Osteoarthritis is a disease of the joints. This very common condition causes pain, stiffness, tenderness and other symptoms in the knees, hips, shoulders and other joints. You can even get osteoarthritis in your fingers.

What many people don't appreciate, however, is the impact osteoarthritis can have on another important body part: your brain. Depression and anxiety are very common in people who live day to day with the pain and lost mobility that comes with osteoarthritis. If you haven't seen a doctor about joint pain and related symptoms, make an appointment today.

Dr. Edward Phillips
Physical Therapy Specialist

Osteoarthritis is sometimes dubbed "wear and tear" arthritis because it starts when cartilage cushioning the joints wears down. Tenderness and morning pain or stiffness that lasts less than 30 minutes are telltale signs of this condition. The joint space narrows and the cartilage thins as bones rub against it, or eventually against each other, sometimes to the point of creating rough spots or bone spurs. Marked by pain in the groin or down the leg, this condition may go unreported because people sometimes assume that the knee, rather than the hip, is the problem. Prior injuries, excess weight, aging and overuse are among the factors that set the stage for hip osteoarthritis.

Osteoarthritis of the knee affects nine million American adults. More than half are over 65. Prior injuries, excess weight, aging and overuse are among the factors that set the stage for knee osteoarthritis. Interestingly, findings from the Framingham Offspring Cohort study suggest that moderately intense exercise like walking or running—at least on normal knees—does not increase the likelihood of osteoarthritis.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.