Osteoarthritis is essentially a “wear-and-tear” disorder. In typical cases, symptoms appear after the age of 50, and usually in the large joints that bear the most weight–the hips, knees, shoulders and spine.

Pain and stiffness are at their most uncomfortable upon arising in the morning and are likely to be intensified during damp, cold weather. (This does not mean, however, that symptoms are likely to disappear in a warm, dry climate.) Redness and swelling of the affected joints may also occur. Joints, particularly in the fingers, may become permanently gnarled by osteoarthritis, but this almost never interferes with their function. Painless bony bumps, known as Heberden’s nodes, may also appear symmetrically on the fingers of both hands or on toe joints as well.

Causes of Osteoarthritis

When a person is young and spry, the joints between the bones swing freely like efficient, well-oiled hinges. Stresses and strains are absorbed by the cartilage pads that provide cushioning and lubrication at the ends of the bones where they constantly come together as the parts of the body make their coordinated movements.

Over the years, these protective layers become eroded, lubricating fluids diminish and the result is a sensation often described as “creaking” at the joints. In addition to a decrease in smoothness of function, small growths, or spurs, may develop on the bones in the area of the joints. These are 10 times more prevalent among women than among men and are likely to aggravate an already uncomfortable condition.

Signs and Symptoms of Osteoarthritis

Since the weight-bearing joints are the ones most commonly affected, stiffness and discomfort in the knees and hips are likeliest to occur first, especially in the overweight person or in someone whose life style involves long stretches of standing or walking. A visit to the doctor for diagnosis normally includes close inspection of painful areas as well as X-ray examination of the joints in question. (when X-ray pictures are taken for diagnosis of some other condition in younger patients, they usually reveal the beginnings of cartilage erosion in the weight-bearing joints at a stage that does not yet produce associated symptoms.) Other than X-rays and visual examination, there are no other diagnostic tests for osteoarthritis.