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What is Osteoarthritis?

Nearly five million Canadians, or one in six, are affected by osteoarthritis – a disease of the whole joint that leads to the breakdown of joint cartilage and the underlying bone. It is the most common form of arthritis and affects more Canadians than all other forms of arthritis combined.

In normal joints, cartilage – the tough elastic material that covers and protects the ends of bones – acts as a cushion and provides a smooth, gliding surface for joint motion. Osteoarthritis causes the cartilage to breakdown, leading to pain, swelling, and problems moving the joint. As it worsens over time, the cartilage wears away and bone rubs against bone, causing joint damage and increased pain.

Osteoarthritis (OA) is sometimes described as degenerative or “wear-and-tear” arthritis, but recent studies more accurately describe it as a result of the body’s failed attempt to repair damaged joint tissues. It usually progresses slowly over months or years and early symptoms tend to come and go. As damage accumulates, symptoms can become more constant, occurring at rest and disturbing sleep. There is currently no cure for OA, but symptoms can improve with treatment.

The joints most commonly affected by OA are the knees, hips, first toes, wrists, thumbs, fingers, and spine. This disease affects everyone differently and depends on which joints are affected and how severely, but common symptoms include joint pain, stiffness, swelling, clicking or cracking sounds when joints bend, and reduced range of movement in the affected joints.

What are the risk factors for developing Osteoarthritis?

For most people OA can occur when otherwise healthy joints are exposed to heavy workloads over a long period of time. However, there are also a number of risk factors that may increase your chances of developing OA:

  • The risk of OA increases with age, although it’s not an inevitable part of aging: many people age without having OA symptoms.
  • Women are more likely to develop OA than men.
  • Genetics can play a part, but having a family member with OA doesn’t mean you will get it.
  • Carrying extra weight puts more stress on weight-bearing joints such as your feet, knees, and hips, and increases your risk of injury as well as the rate of degeneration. In addition, fat tissue can release substances in your body that increase joint inflammation.
  • OA can occur in joints that have been “damaged” by a previous injury.
  • Repeated stress on a particular joint can increase the risk of OA in that joint.
  • Malformed joints are at greater risk of OA.
  • Weakness of supporting structures around the joint such as muscles and ligaments can increase the risk of OA.

How is Osteoarthritis treated?

Osteoarthritis is a chronic (long-term) disease and, although there is no cure, treatment can help reduce your symptoms and make it possible for you to lead a full and active life. In most cases, you can manage mild to moderate arthritis symptoms for many years with a treatment plan that may include:

  • Medication such as acetaminophen, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen or naproxen, or capsaicin cream for the skin.
  • Exercise to help keep your muscles strong and your joints moving well.
  • Weight loss, if you’re overweight, to reduce the stress on your joints.
  • Hot and cold therapy, such as hot compresses, cold packs, ice massage, or paraffin wax.
  • Physiotherapy or occupational therapy.
  • Assistive devices and orthotics to help protect and take the stress off of your joints.
  • Changing activities to reduce stress on the painful joint and allow you to move better.
  • A positive outlook to help you cope with the stress and challenges of living with arthritis.

If the pain and stiffness from arthritis don’t improve or worsen, your doctor may recommend Image-Guided Pain Therapy injections, opioid pain medication, or, if the pain is debilitating, surgery.

For more information on your treatment options, please speak to your health care practitioner.


Arthritis Foundation (2018) What is Osteoarthritis? Accessed January 10, 2018.

Arthritis Society & Dr. J. Hochman. (2017) Osteoarthritis. Accessed January 10, 2018.

Healthwise Staff (2017) Osteoarthritis. Accessed January 10, 2018.

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