What are the signs of osteoarthritis?
Geraldine M. Navarro, MD
Joint signs of osteoarthritis (OA) include pain and stiffness. In addition to causing pain and stiffness, OA can affect many different joints. The hands, feet, knees, hips and spine can all be affected. Typically, the doctor notes tenderness to palpitation when doing an exam. There may also be swelling, or effusions, present. Cracking or crunchiness, called crepitus, may also be a factor. Finally, palpable bony enlargements along the periphery of the joints called osteophytes, may often be felt in a physical exam.
The joint signs of osteoarthritis (OA) are debilitating pain, stiffness, swelling, cracking sounds when the joints move, and reduced mobility. With osteoarthritis, cartilage that supports and cushions the joints of the hands, spine, hips and knees wears away so that bones rub against each other. It's this rubbing that leads to the pain and reduced mobility of osteoarthritis. Rubbing also causes joint and bone deformities.
UCLA Health
The most common sign of osteoarthritis is pain, ranging from mild to severe, in one or more joints. Another common symptom is joint stiffness. The combination of pain and stiffness can affect your range of motion -- an arthritic knee, for example, may make it impossible to stretch your leg all the way out. Swelling and tenderness around the joint can also signal osteoarthritis. It's common to lose muscle strength around the damaged joint, although exercise and strength training can help preserve it. If you have osteoarthritis in your knee or hip, it may affect your mobility and gait (the way you walk). 
How do you know whether you have osteoarthritis? Or whether your osteoarthritis is getting worse? It's not always easy to know. Some people may not experience any symptoms even though joint damage is visible on their imaging tests. Then again, other people may experience quite a few symptoms, even with mild signs of joint deterioration.

Here are five telltale signs that you may have new -- or worsening -- osteoarthritis:
  • Pain: Do your joints feel achy with activity and better with rest? Mild osteoarthritis causes pain that comes and goes. More advanced forms of the disease may cause constant pain that restricts movement.
  • Stiffness: Do you feel stiff like the Tin Man? Joint stiffness that's worse in the morning -- lasting less than 30 minutes -- and worse after resting is a common symptom of osteoarthritis. That stiffness may limit your range of motion, although you can help shake it off by moving the joint for a few minutes.
  • Swelling: Do your joints look knobby and swollen? Joint damage triggers the growth of bone spurs, or osteophytes, near joints affected by osteoarthritis.
  • Musical joints: Do you notice creaking, grinding, crunching, or popping sounds when you move? Damaged joints may make noise when bone rubs against bone.
  • Muscle weakness: Do the muscles around your affected joints feel weak? Whether you do it consciously or unconsciously, protecting painful or stiff joints by using them less can lead to weaker muscles around affected joints.

If you notice any of these symptoms, don't despair. You have plenty of options for treating joint symptoms now, which may help slow down the progress of the disease.

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According to Kelley’s Textbook of Rheumatology, osteoarthritis typically affects weight bearing joints like the knees, hips, and spine. Pain is usually the first symptom and is exacerbated by extensive, repetitive use. Some patients experience stiffness in the joint(s) with rest. As the disease progresses, patients frequently loose motion and function, experience disturbed sleep, and can suffer a serious deterioration in the quality of life.
Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)

Osteoarthritis (OA) develops gradually, so you may not even realize you have it until you start experiencing some of the early signs, including:

  • Pain in the joint, especially during movement such as walking
  • Stiffness of the joint, especially when you wake up or after you've been inactive for a while
  • Swelling in and around the joint
  • Loss of flexibility, including the inability to move the joint through its full range of motion
  • A crunching or grating sensation caused by bone moving against bone inside the joint

Any one of these signs could mean you have OA. Tell your doctor about your symptoms. The sooner you begin treating your OA, the better.

With osteoarthritis, you may feel well except for the painful joint involved. There may be a few minutes of stiffness on arising in the morning, and there may be some stiffness after sitting for a short period of time.  But these symptoms are usually not as severe as in the inflammatory types of arthritis such as rheumatoid arthritis. 

There are no internal organ problems in osteoarthritis. You may feel pain and swelling in your joints, and it may make it hard to walk or to arise from a chair due to knee, hip or back pain.  Opening jars or writing may be painful when the hands are affected.

Here are some symptoms of osteoarthritis:

  • Deep, aching pain in joint
  • Swelling of joint
  • Joint may be warm to touch
  • Morning stiffness
  • Stiffness after resting
  • Fatigue
  • Pain when walking
  • Difficulty gripping objects
  • Difficulty dressing or combing hair
  • Difficulty sitting or bending over


Dr. Michael Roizen, MD
Internal Medicine
The two most common signs of osteoarthritis are joint stiffness and pain, ranging from mild to nearly off the chart, in at least one joint. Put the stiffness and pain together, and you can feel like the Tin Man before Dorothy finds the oilcan. Swelling and tenderness around the joint can also be indicative of osteoarthritis. You may also lose muscle strength around the joint. If you have osteoarthritis in your knee or hip, it may even affect the way you walk. So if your joints are showing one or more of these signs, chances are osteoarthritis is the culprit.

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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.