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A Doctor's View on Osteoarthritis Symptoms

Read the Comment by William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

Osteoarthritis symptoms may include pain, stiffness, swelling, redness, warmth, creaking, and loss of function. When osteoarthritis first develops, there may be no symptoms. Cartilage loss, nodularity of the joints, and bony enlargements result as osteoarthritis progresses. Severe osteoarthritis symptoms may lead to a loss of function and disability. Read the entire Doctor's View

What are osteoarthritis symptoms and signs?

Osteoarthritis is a disease that is isolated to the cartilage of the joints. Unlike many other forms of arthritis that are systemic illnesses (conditions that affect multiple areas of the body apart from the joints), such as rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus, osteoarthritis does not affect other organs of the body. The most common symptom of osteoarthritis is pain in the affected joint(s) after repetitive use. This can lead to knee pain, hip pain, finger joint pain, ankle pain, foot pain, wrist pain, and shoulder pain with loss of range of motion and function. Joint pain of osteoarthritis is usually worse later in the day. There can be swelling, warmth, and creaking of the affected joints. Pain and stiffness of the joints can also occur after long periods of inactivity (for example, sitting in a theater). In severe osteoarthritis, complete loss of the cartilage cushion causes friction between bones, causing pain even at rest or pain with limited motion.

Symptoms of osteoarthritis vary greatly from patient to patient. Some patients can be debilitated by their symptoms. On the other hand, others may have remarkably few symptoms in spite of dramatic degeneration of the joints apparent on X-rays. Symptoms also can be intermittent. It is not unusual for patients with osteoarthritis of the finger joints of the hands and knees to have years of pain-free intervals between symptoms.

Osteoarthritis of the knees is often associated with excess upper body weight, with obesity, or a history of repeated injury and/or joint surgery. Progressive cartilage degeneration of the knee joints can lead to deformity and outward curvature of the knees, which is referred to as being "bowlegged." People with osteoarthritis of the weight-bearing joints (such as the knees) can develop a limp. The limping can worsen as more cartilage degenerates. In some patients, the pain, limping, and joint dysfunction may not respond to medications or other conservative measures. Therefore, severe osteoarthritis of the knees is one of the most common reasons for total knee replacement medical procedures in the United States.

Osteoarthritis of the cervical spine or lumbar spine causes pain in the neck or low back. Bony spurs, called osteophytes, that form along the arthritic spine can irritate spinal nerves, causing severe pain that can radiate from the spine as well as numbness and tingling of the affected parts of the body.

Osteoarthritis causes the formation of hard, bony enlargements of the small joints of the fingers. Classic bony enlargement of the small joint at the end of the fingers is called a Heberden's node, named after a famous British doctor. The bony deformity is a result of the bone spurs from the osteoarthritis in that joint. Another common bony knob (node) occurs at the middle joint of the fingers in many patients with osteoarthritis and is called a Bouchard's node. Dr. Bouchard was a famous French doctor who also studied arthritis patients in the late 1800s. Heberden's and Bouchard's nodes may not be painful, but they are often associated with limitation of motion of the joint. The characteristic appearances of these finger nodes can be helpful in diagnosing osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis of the joint at the base of the big toe of the foot leads to the formation of a bunion. Osteoarthritis of the fingers and the toes may have a genetic basis and can be found in numerous female members of some families.

Return to Osteoarthritis (OA)

See what others are saying

Comment from: Donna, 55-64 Female (Patient) Published: June 16

First symptom of osteoarthritis was jaw pain. Not TMJ type facial pain, but just in the jaw joint. It took me several years and multiple doctor visits and changing doctors, having exploratory surgery to figure out what was going on. This was done after MRI/CT also. It turned out a childhood accident had affected my jaw/bite and no one ever knew it. I spent a number of very miserable years as an adult trying to get a diagnosis (including being told I was imagining things) when I finally found the surgeon who saw me; he quickly got to the bottom of the problem. I now have artificial jaw joints. Since then I have also had lumbar multi-level spinal fusion, two level neck fusion. I have been told I need a thumb joint replaced. My one knee is problematic (it began with an injury). My elbows do a lot of grating noises which has me a bit worried but guess I will wait and see.

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Comment from: totallybored, 55-64 Female (Patient) Published: February 28

Osteoarthritis started in a few fingers with the end joint swelling and turning red then turning crooked. Now it is in my hands bad and getting in my feet. I can feel it a little in my neck.

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Comment from: ladyk, 55-64 Female (Patient) Published: February 03

I have multiple issues with my joints including osteoarthritis of my knees and degenerative joint disease of my spine. I started using Siberian pine nut oil which has a very potent anti-inflammatory base to it. If you google it you can read about the effects and benefits it has on inflammations and joint pain and the healing properties it has. So far it has helped my hand pain and my leg pain has gotten better. It is an herbal supplement so it has no side effects and it has a nutty flavor to it.

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