Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. It is a chronic, degenerative joint disease that affects mostly middle-aged and older adults. Osteoarthritis is characterized by the breakdown of joint cartilage. It is not simply “wear and tear”, but rather chemical changes in joint cartilage (the cushioning tissue between the bones that form a joint) that cause it to break down and new bone, in the form of bone spurs to be formed. The word osteoarthritis literally means “bony arthritis”.

  • Osteoarthritis is an active biochemical process that dissolves joint cartilage.
  • Cartilage has no nerves, so pain is not caused directly by its breakdown.
  • However, the decreased “shock absorption” that results from the breakdown of cartilage causes increased stress to surrounding structures such as bones, muscles and the joint lining.
  • This can lead to sudden “flares” of pain when these tissues get irritated.
  • Osteoarthritis can affect the hips, knees, hands, elbows, wrists, fingers, shoulders, neck and low back. In other words, any joint.

One Place for Joint Care

The Center for Joint Care is the one place in San Diego where patients with degenerative joint disease and pre-arthritic conditions receive advanced comprehensive joint care. Learn more.

Osteoarthritis may develop as a result of another condition, such as a previous injury to a joint or excess weight that puts extra strain on a joint. Genetic factors also play a strong role in the development of osteoarthritis.

Causes and Risk Factors

  • Aging, which does not cause osteoarthritis but increases the chances of it
  • A family history of osteoarthritis 
  • Being overweight or obese 
  • Other forms of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis 
  • Injuries to a joint 
  • Certain jobs that repeatedly place excess strain on a joint


  • Pain, which is usually related to activity of the joint and is worse at the end of the day or after periods of activity. As the disease progresses, pain may be present even during rest.
  • Stiffness (usually lasting less than one hour) after periods of inactivity, such as in the morning after a night's sleep or after sitting for a long time
  • Limited joint motion
  • Tenderness and occasional swelling
  • Joint deformity (usually in later stages of osteoarthritis)

Diagnosis and Treatment

Your physician will evaluate your symptoms and do a full physical exam. Sometimes doctors will also perform include other tests in the evaluation, such as:

  • Joint fluid analysis
  • X-ray, MRI or ultrasound
  • Blood tests

At UC San Diego Health, we have a board-certified rheumatologist who can evaluate your joint health, form a diagnosis, and assist in nonsurgical management of the disease.

Dr. Gregg Middleton discusses osteoarthritis. See more

videos at Patient Resources.

Although there is no cure for osteoarthritis, treatments can improve your pain, your ability to function and your quality of life. Initial treatment options can include:
  • Medication, such as acetaminophen
  • Exercises to keep your joints mobile 
  • Heat and cold therapy, such as hot compresses or cold packs
  • Corticosteroid or hyaluronic acid injections

The goal of these treatments is to help keep you active, able to do what you need to do and to exercise.

Patients with osteoarthritis who remain active and exercise regularly have been shown to improve their physical functioning and reduce their pain over time.

Surgical Options

If you have severe osteoarthritis that doesn't respond to initial treatments or if you have significant loss of cartilage, surgery may be an option to relieve pain and help restore function and mobility. Visit the Center for Joint Care to learn more about our expertise in joint resurfacing and replacement. Our orthopedic specialists will discuss surgical options with you and recommend treatment according to the affected area and the severity of your osteoarthritis. Any surgery will be followed by a period of rehabilitation to help restore function and mobility.

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