Maybe it starts with a little soreness in your knees in the morning. Perhaps your hands feel stiff when the weather gets bad, or you notice your hip aches when you stand up from sitting. These types of joint pain become common as we get older and may be caused by osteoarthritis. Here’s what you should know.

What Is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a type of arthritis often referred to as a “wear and tear” disease due to cartilage deterioration in the joints. Cartilage lines the inner surfaces of the joint where two bones meet and move. This cartilage is a resilient, flexible material that protects the bones from shock, damage, and wear. It also prevents the bone surfaces from coming into direct contact with one another.

Over time, cartilage gradually wears thin (or completely away) in the joint. Severe degeneration or loss of cartilage may lead to direct bone-on-bone contact. When this happens, there is a decrease in the normal range of motion and function of the joint—and the potential for pain.

This loss of cartilage is also associated with inflammation. Inflammation release molecules that can further damage the tissues in and around the joint. Damaged cartilage may also impact or damage the sac of synovial fluid around your joint. Synovial fluid helps joints to glide smoothly against each other, too. When this is compromised, this source of protection and cushioning within some joints is gone.

Osteoarthritis is most common in high-use joints in the body. These include:

  • Finger joints
  • Toe joints
  • Knee joints
  • Hip joints
  • Spinal joints (including facet joints)

Most people experience osteoarthritis as a gradual increase in pain and decreased joint mobility over time. As the condition progresses, you might experience loss of flexibility, more pain, and even damage in the joint. Osteoarthritis is a chronic, progressive disorder, which means it is not technically “curable” and will get steadily worse over time.

Unlike other types of arthritis that can involve other tissues, osteoarthritis is normally confined to joints. This condition occurs most often in adults over 60, but younger people can develop osteoarthritis as well. When this happens, it is usually related to a prior joint injury or damage.

What Are Common Osteoarthritis Causes?

Although osteoarthritis is a result of age-related wear and tear, there are other causes and risk factors.

For most people and regardless of cause, osteoarthritis often has a mild onset and then intensifies slowly over time. Age-related degeneration is just a fact of life. Certain structures of our bodies just begin to wear as we use them.

But there are variables or attributes are associated with an increased risk of osteoarthritis. Some of these risk factors include:

  • Increased bodyweight
  • Prior injury or damage to joints (especially for early-onset osteoarthritis)
  • Structural joint abnormalities
  • Joint disorders
  • Genetic factors concerning cartilage formation
  • Occupational hazards that increase stress on joints (e.g. repetitive athletic movements or motions at work)

Some of these risk factors can be controlled, while others are simply a function of age.

Do I Have Osteoarthritis?

Symptoms of osteoarthritis can vary and are as individual as each person who suffers from it. The most common osteoarthritis symptoms include:

  • Reduced flexibility
  • Reduced range of motion in the affected joint(s)
  • Joint pain

Some people experience heat and swelling in the affected joint, too.

Symptoms are not always constant. They may begin as a dull ache that gets worse, but they many also go away for periods of time.