Osteoarthritis: Causes, Signs & Treatment Options

Written by Leon Mao
Physiotherapist, University of Melbourne
Medically reviewed by Dr Gina Arena
Research Fellow, University of Western Australia
Reviewed on March 29, 2022
Contributed by Nikita Mistry
Physiotherapist, Western Sydney University

Woman sitting on the couch looking at her hands with osteoarthritis

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), approximately 9.3% of the population or 2.2 million Australians live with osteoarthritis.[1] Compared to males, females are 50% more likely to develop osteoarthritis. The AIHW have also found that those over the age of 45 years old are twice as likely to be diagnosed with this condition.[1]

One of the biggest misconceptions about osteoarthritis is that exercise can be harmful and cause additional joint damage. However, research has supported that a moderate amount of exercise can actually decrease the degenerative progression of the condition.[2]

Read on to understand what you should know about osteoarthritis; the risk factors, treatment options and expected recovery time.

What is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis and occurs when the cartilage between the joints begins to break down. Over time, this condition can become more severe, leading to joint swelling, stiffness and pain. Common joints that are affected include the knee, hip and spine.

What are the symptoms of osteoarthritis?

The main symptoms of osteoarthritis are joint pain and stiffness. People also experience swelling and redness when the affected joint flares up. Other symptoms include crepitus, clicking, or popping sounds with movement.

Common symptoms of osteoarthritis

  • Pain

  • Tenderness

  • Swelling

  • Stiffness

  • Grating sensation

  • Bone spurs

  • Decrease in range of motion

What causes osteoarthritis?

A single issue does not cause osteoarthritis, however, certain factors increase your risk. These include age, obesity, genetic factors, previous injury and even gender, with women more likely to suffer than men.

Common causes of osteoarthritis

  • Repetitive stress on the joints

  • Ageing

  • Obesity

  • Joint injuries

  • Genetics

  • Metabolic diseases (diabetes)

How is osteoarthritis diagnosed?

Osteoarthritis can be frustrating and limit you from doing activities that you usually do. Osteoarthritis in your hip and knee joints can lead to immobility and decrease the quality of your life.

There are several options available when it comes to diagnosing your pain as osteoarthritis. One of the more common and most recommended by Australian GPs is an assessment from a physiotherapist.

Physiotherapists are experts when it comes to joint rehabilitation and pain management. They can diagnose joint problems and effectively provide treatment for your pain and discomfort.

An assessment from a physiotherapist is comprehensive and straightforward. Similar to visiting a GP, your physio will ask vital questions regarding your health and lifestyle. The consultation is like a mini-interview where you can provide information about the history of your condition.

After establishing the background of your condition, your physiotherapist will then perform a detailed assessment of your joints and muscles to determine factors that contribute to the progression of your osteoarthritis and prevent it.

Your physiotherapist will then create a diagnosis and treatment plan based on your assessment. This whole process will take about 30 to 60 minutes.

You will also be given the details of your program. This will include:

  • Number of treatment sessions

  • List of exercises you need to do at home

  • Strategies to manage the pain and prevent complications

  • Timeline of your full recovery

How is osteoarthritis treated?

There are several options when it comes to treating osteoarthritis. One of the more common treatment options referred to by Australian GPs is physiotherapy.

Treatment of osteoarthritis can improve the overall quality of life of patients and help them stay active.

Osteoarthritis is a condition that physiotherapists come across regularly, and the process of managing it is relatively straightforward.

Following an initial consultation, the physiotherapist will be in the best position to determine your treatment plan.

Physiotherapists are rehabilitation experts that deal with joint pain and conditions to improve your overall situation and allow you to stay active in life.

Your treatment will focus on reducing your pain, treating inflammation and improving your mobility.

The most effective treatments focus on exercise and movement. Although there are certain limitations with joint mobility, the phrase “use it or lose it” is quite true in the case of osteoarthritis. It is imperative to keep as active as possible, keeping the joints and muscles healthy and active.

Depending on the severity of your osteoarthritis, a physiotherapist may provide you with a combination of the following types of treatments:

  • Cryotherapy - Cold modalities used in acute situations to decrease signs of inflammation of the joints.

  • Therapeutic Eexercise - Exercise techniques to improve your overall function and decrease pain.

  • Strengthening Exercise - Exercise techniques to improve your muscle strength and support your joint stability.

  • Joint Mobilisation - Hands-on therapeutic techniques on your joints to decrease stiffness, pain and improve joint motion.

  • Balance and Fall Prevention Training - Used to treat balance issues, especially for elderly patients. Reduces the risk of falls and promotes efficient use of your weight-bearing joints.

  • Stretching: Increase your range of motion and decrease joint stiffness

  • Manual Therapy: Hands-on physiotherapy techniques to improve overall joint mobility and decrease pain.

  • Dry Needling: Specialised treatment used to decrease pain

Physiotherapy treatment can last for about 30 to 60 minutes. Most patients can feel the difference in just a single session.

Next step: Creating a treatment plan made for you

After your initial visit, your therapist will create a detailed step by step program to help you with your recovery and improve your overall health status.

Self-care for osteoarthritis

If you have osteoarthritis, here are the best things you can do and avoid.

Things to do:

  • Exercise

Exercising can be arduous when you have painful joints. But staying active and building stronger muscles can effectively reduce pain in the long run. Exercise is the most effective pain treatment for osteoarthritis. This does not need to be high intensity; walking is one of the best options!

  • Reduce weight

Reducing your weight can decrease the stress on your joints when you do weight-bearing activities such as walking or running.

  • Gentle stretching

Stretch your muscles regularly to help relieve the tightness and stiffness of your joints.

  • Prioritise your health

Reducing systemic inflammation is key to reducing symptoms of osteoarthritis. This means eating fresh and good quality food, making sure you get adequate sleep and keeping active generally. It’s amazing the benefits that these strategies can have in the long term.

Things to avoid:

  • High impact activities

Avoid high impact activities that may harm your joints, such as sports that focus on jumping.

  • Highly processed foods

Highly processed foods can increase the levels of inflammation in your body.

Do I need a specialist or surgery?

Diagnostic imaging may be done, such as X-Ray or MRI, to determine the extent of joint damage.

Patients with severe joint damage that causes limitation in mobility can undergo repair or replacement of damaged joint components. This occurs most frequently with the hips or knees.

Your physician will coordinate with your physiotherapist to aid you in your recovery process.

What is the recovery time / prognosis for osteoarthritis?

There is no treatment or specific cure for osteoarthritis, but you can manage your symptoms and slow down the progression. People who properly manage their condition sustain an active and healthy lifestyle, reducing the need to undergo surgery.

Symptom flare-ups can resolve within a few days to up to a week. Physiotherapy improves the overall outcome for patients with osteoarthritis and helps them recover faster.

Can osteoarthritis be prevented?

It is impossible to suggest a prevention for osteoarthritis, however, there are things you can do to improve current symptoms and potentially reduce the risk of developing osteoarthritis in the first place. Of course, these preventative tips also double as effective strategies if you already have osteoarthritis.

  • General exercise: Exercise can increase your bone health and improve your muscle strength which gives more stability to your joints, thus reducing the risk of damage.

  • Maintain a healthy weight: Maintaining a healthy weight can decrease the stress on your joints and prevent other injuries.

  • Avoid overuse of your joints: Pace your activities and allow sufficient rest for your body. Avoid high impact activities that could damage your joints.

Outlook and the main takeaways

Osteoarthritis is a painful condition that affects the cartilage of your joints. Symptoms include pain, swelling and difficulty moving around. The good news is, we can improve both your mobility and your pain. Speak to a local physiotherapist today about getting in front of your osteoarthritis and live a happy and active life.

Anatomy of the joint

A joint is formed by the ends of two or more bones. It is an articulation between the bones that allows movement.

Each end of the bone is covered with specialised hyaline tissues called cartilage. This cartilage serves as a cushion to allow almost frictionless motion between the bones.

Over time due to repetitive stress to the joints, cartilage begins to break down, causing the bone to bone contact inside the joint, resulting in osteoarthritis.

Written by Leon Mao
Physiotherapist, University of Melbourne
Published on March 29, 2022
Medically reviewed by Dr Gina Arena
Research Fellow, University of Western Australia
Reviewed on March 29, 2022
Contributed by Nikita Mistry
Physiotherapist, Western Sydney University
Medical reviewers
Last medically reviewed on March 29, 2022
BookPhysio.com has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references. You can learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate and current by reading our editorial policy.
  • 1.

    Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2020. Osteoarthritis[Internet] . Canberra (ACT): Australian Institute of Health and Welfare; 2020 [cited 2022 Mar 4]. Report no.:Cat. no. PHE 232.

  • 2.

    Bricca A, Wirth W, Juhl CB, Kemnitz J, Hunter DJ, Kwoh CK, et al. Moderate physical activity and prevention of cartilage loss in people with knee osteoarthritis: data from the osteoarthritis initiative. Arthritis Care Res [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2022 Mar 4];71:218-226.

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