Get to know the common condition that affects one in 11 Australians.

A senior woman holds her painful knee.

Osteoarthritis is a condition that affects the joints: the bones, cartilage, ligaments and muscles.

Normally, healthy cartilage allows bones to glide over one another. However, in people with osteoarthritis the cartilage covering the joints wears away causing the bones to rub together creating pain, swelling, and stiffness.

Osteoarthritis can have a debilitating impact on a person’s life. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, those living with osteoarthritis are much more likely to report poor health, high levels of psychological distress and severe pain than those who aren’t living with the condition

Who is most at risk of osteoarthritis?

There’s no specific cause of osteoarthritis however there are several factors that can contribute to its onset and progression:

  • being overweight or obese,
  • genetics,
  • joint misalignment, injury or trauma (such as dislocation or fracture),
  • repetitive joint-loading tasks (for example, kneeling, squatting and heavy lifting).

What are the common symptoms of osteoarthritis?

Common symptoms of osteoarthritis are:

  • pain, stiffness and limited joint movement,
  • limited range of motion or stiffness that goes away after movement,
  • clicking or cracking sound when a joint bends,
  • mild swelling around a joint,
  • pain that is worse after activity or toward the end of the day.

How to manage or treat osteoarthritis

While there is no cure for osteoarthritis there’s a lot you can do to take control of your condition to slow its progression, reduce your pain, and improve your function.

Exercise

This is one of the best ways to manage your symptoms, improve your mood and your overall health. Regular exercise can help reduce some of the symptoms (e.g. pain, stiffness) caused by your condition and improve your joint mobility and strength. If you have knee osteoarthritis, the best exercises are muscle strengthening, walking and Tai Chi. Depending on your circumstances, other beneficial exercises are stationary cycling, aquatic exercise, hydrotherapy and Hatha yoga.

READ MORE: How does exercise help with osteoarthritis?

Improving joint mobility and flexibility

Slow, gentle stretching of joints may improve flexibility, lessen stiffness and reduce pain.

Losing weight or maintaining a healthy weight

Excess weight adds additional stress to weight-bearing joints, such as the hips, knees, feet and back. Even a small amount of weight loss is beneficial and can help reduce pain. If you need to lose weight, speak to your GP about effective and supportive weight loss programs that are available to help you.

READ MORE: Can diet help with osteoarthritis?

Pain management

Using medicines such as paracetamol or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) will help manage the pain.

Physical and occupational therapy

Therapists can assist by providing advice on ways to use hot and cold therapies, motion and flexibility exercises and devices such as braces, walking sticks, and shoe insoles.

Joint replacement surgery

Surgery should only be recommended to repair or replace severely damaged joints, especially hips or knees, if your symptoms can no longer be controlled with other therapies.

It’s important to note that treatment varies depending on which joint if affected. Talk to your GP to find the right plan for you.

If you have hip osteoarthritis, talk to your GP or physiotherapist about a progressive exercise program. Your GP can tailor a program that works for you.

If you have knee pain, the Better Knee, Better Me decision aid tool may help you determine if you should consider surgery.

Is osteoarthritis preventable?

There are ways you may be able to reduce your risk of osteoarthritis, including:

Exercising safely and sensibly

It helps to strengthen important muscle groups. Just remember, it’s crucial to ensure you are using the correct techniques to limit excessive strain on your joints. A physiotherapist can help with this.

Maintaining a healthy diet

This is key for ensuring you avoid placing added strain on the joints through excess weight.

Protecting your knees

To protect your knees, it’s important you lose any excess weight you might be carrying and avoid injury by exercising sensibly. Keeping muscles strong — particularly the quadriceps — can also help by reducing strain on the knee.

What do I do if I have osteoarthritis?

If you think you might have osteoarthritis, your first step should be to visit your GP to discuss your symptoms. They can refer you to a specialist if necessary. You can also call the 24/7 Medibank Nurse on 1800 644 325 who can support you if you’re concerned about joint pain.