What is osteoarthritis? What causes it? Who is most at risk? Can we prevent it? How is it different from osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis?

What is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis causes our joints to become painful and stiff – and is the most common type of arthritis in the UK.

It mainly affects our knees, hips or the small joints of the hand. However, it can affect any joints, including in the neck and lower back.

What causes it?

As we get older the cartilage (firm, connective tissue) that cushions the ends of the bones in our joints can be subject to wear and tear.

Osteoarthritis is age related. Almost everyone aged over 70 develops some degree of osteoarthritis in their joints, although they may not necessarily experience symptoms.

Who is most at risk?

Anything that increases this wear and tear of the protective cartilage increases the risk of osteoarthritis. So osteoarthritis is a bigger risk if we:

  • Are overweight or obese (as we’re putting more pressure on the cartilage)
  • Do ‘heavy’ exercise, like running, weight training and wrestling, which puts greater pressure on our knees and so increases the risk of knee arthritis.
  • Are getting older (as there will have been more years of wear and tear)
  • Have a prior injury to that part of our body e.g. our knee
  • Have a job which involves a lot of kneeling or squatting.
  • Are female - which is unfortunately another risk factor.

Can we prevent it?

There’s no 100% guaranteed way to prevent osteoarthritis. However, we can reduce the risk by avoiding some of the causes. In particular we should:

  • Maintain a normal weight (to limit the pressure on our cartilage).
  • Do moderate intensity exercise, like fast walking, swimming or cycling. This keeps our muscles strong, which may help our joints stay strong – without putting too much pressure on our cartilage in the way that running or weight training can do. However, we need to keep up the exercise for this to protect us. If you already have osteoarthritis, there’s research to show that exercising may help to reduce joint pain and improve your ability to carry out physical activities. A review of studies, published in 2017, showed that doing Tai chi for at least 24 weeks could help to reduce loss of bone mass.            
  • Maintain a good posture and avoid staying in one position for too long.  So if you have a job that involves sitting down for long periods, take regular breaks and move around. 

If you use a keyboard a lot there’s a gel you can get to place under your wrists to reduce the strain.


How is osteoarthritis different from osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is a condition in which bones become less dense and are more likely to fracture.

How is osteoarthritis different from rheumatoid arthritis? 

Rheumatoid arthritis is caused by a malfunction in our immune system – which mistakenly attacks the lining of our joints. This causes painful swelling and can even result in joint deformity over time. The pain also tends to last longer than for osteoarthritis.

Because this is an immune system response rheumatoid arthritis tends to affect the same joints on both sides of the body. In contrast osteoarthritis (perhaps because wear and tear aren’t necessarily even) tends to affect only one hand or knee or other joint.


To reduce the risk of painful osteoarthritis

1. Reduce the wear and tear on your cartilage by:

  • Maintaining a normal weight 
  • Avoiding ‘heavy’ exercise, like running and weight training
  • Maintaining a good posture and not sitting in one position too long

2. Protect yourself through

  • Regular moderate intensity exercise - like fast walking, swimming and cycling
  • Taking special care of any joint that has been injured
  • Wrist support gel if you use a keyboard a lot

Reviewed and updated by Dianne Cottle, May 2018. Scheduled review date May 2022