Inside a joint, a tissue called cartilage cushions the joint and prevents the bones from rubbing against each other. Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage of a joint erodes (breaks down). Bones begin to rub against each other, causing pain and difficulty moving the joint. Osteoarthritis also can affect nearby bones, which can become enlarged in places. These enlargements are called bone spurs or osteophytes.
Although the term arthritis means joint inflammation, there is relatively little inflammation in the joints of most people with osteoarthritis. For this reason, and because this type of arthritis seems to be caused by age-related degeneration of the joints, many experts and health care professionals prefer to call it degenerative joint disease.
Osteoarthritis can range from mild to severe. The pain associated with osteoarthritis can be significant and it usually is made worse by movement. Osteoarthritis can be limited to one joint or start in one joint usually the knee, hip, hand, foot or spine or it can involve a number of joints. If the hand is affected, usually many joints of the fingers become arthritic.
Osteoarthritis probably does not have a single cause, and, for most people, no cause can be identified. Age is a leading risk factor, because osteoarthritis usually occurs as people get older. However, research suggests that joints do not always deteriorate as people age. Other factors seem to contribute to osteoarthritis. Sports-related injuries or repeated small injuries caused by repeated movements on the job may increase the risk of developing osteoarthritis. Genetics also plays a role. Obesity seems to increase the risk of developing osteoarthritis of the knees.
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