According to the CDC, nearly 47 million people in the U.S. have some form of arthritis or chronic joint symptoms.

The most common form of arthritis, osteoarthritis, is a chronic, degenerative joint disease that affects mostly middle-aged and older adults. It is characterized by the breakdown of joint cartilage.

Types of Arthritis

Arthritis, which literally means inflammation of a joint, refers to more than 100 different diseases that cause pain, stiffness, and swelling in joints or other supportive body structures, such as muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones. In addition to osteoarthritis, other prevalent forms of arthritis are fibromyalgia, a chronic, widespread pain in muscles and soft tissues surrounding the joints throughout the body, and rheumatoid arthritis, an inflammatory disease that involves the lining of the joint.

Joints are the areas where two bones meet. Most joints are mobile, allowing the bones to move. Although osteoarthritis can occur in any joint, it usually affects the hands, knees, hips, or spine. 

Cartilage is a type of tissue that covers the surface of a bone at a joint. It helps reduce the friction of movement within a joint. In osteoarthritis, the cartilage in the joint wears down. As a result, the bone ends may thicken, forming bony growths or spurs that interfere with joint movement. In addition, bits of bone and cartilage may float in the joint space, and fluid-filled cysts may form in the bone, limiting joint movement.

Arthritis Symptoms Include:

  • Joint pain
  • Joint stiffness, especially after sleeping, sitting, or inactivity
  • Morning pain and stiffness that resolves in several hours
  • Joint swelling and body enlargement
  • Fluid buildup and pressure in the joint
  • Muscle and tendon pain
  • Grinding of joints when moved (in more advanced stages of osteoarthritis) as the cartilage wears away
  • Unsteady or painful standing and walking if lower extremity joints are involved


Osteoarthritis occurs in most people as they age, but it also may occur in young people as a result of injury or overuse. It can be classified as primary or secondary. Primary osteoarthritis has an unknown cause, while secondary osteoarthritis is caused by another disease, infection, injury, or deformity.

Risk Factors

Several risk factors are associated with osteoarthritis, including the following:

  • Heredity: Slight joint defects or genetic defects may contribute to the development of osteoarthritis.

  • Obesity: Excessive weight can put undue stress on such joints as the knees.

  • Injury/overuse: Significant injury to a joint, such as the knee, can later result in osteoarthritis. Injury may also result from repeated overuse or misuse.

Diagnosis and Treatment

In addition to a complete medical history and physical exam, the most common way a doctor diagnoses osteoarthritis in a joint is by X-ray. The goals of treatment are to reduce joint pain and stiffness and to improve joint movement. Treatment may include aerobic and strengthening exercises, heat treatment, physical and occupational therapy, weight maintenance, medication, or joint surgery.

Medical Reviewer: [Akin, Louise RN, BSN, Bowers, Nancy A. RN, BSN, MPH, Fincannon, Joy RN MN, Foster, Sara M. RN, MPH, Gaskin, Kelley RN, MSN, CPNP, Pierce-Smith, Daphne RN, MSN, CCRC, FNP] Last Annual Review Date: 2009-03-31T00:00:00-06:00 Copyright: © 2000-2010 The StayWell Company, 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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Arthritis accounts for 39 million doctor visits each year and more than 500,000 trips to the hospital.