Understanding Osteoarthritis: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Picture of Author: Ruben Salinas, PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS

Author: Ruben Salinas, PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS

Ruben Salinas is the founder and president of Salinas PT.

What is Osteoarthritis?

According to the CDC, osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease that affects more than 32.5 million adults in the US alone. Osteoarthritis can affect any joint but typically targets the hands, knees, neck and lower back. Once considered a “wear and tear” condition, we now know that this is a disease of the entire joint, including bone, cartilage, ligaments, fat, and the tissues lining the joint. Osteoarthritis has the ability to degrade cartilage, change bone shape and cause inflammation resulting in stiffness, loss of mobility and pain. 

At this time, there is no cure for osteoarthritis. However, there are ways to minimize pain, continue physical activity, and maintain a good quality of life if you are experiencing symptoms. In this article we’ll discuss the main causes, common symptoms, and how physical therapy can effectively manage this condition.

What are the Main Causes?

Several risk factors can lead to developing osteoarthritis. Age, injury, overuse, and obesity are some of the more obvious reasons. However, musculoskeletal abnormalities, weak muscles, genetics, gender, and environmental factors also play a role. 

  • Age: The risk of developing osteoarthritis increases with age, as the cartilage naturally becomes less resilient and more susceptible to damage.
  • Injury: Previous joint injuries, such as fractures or ligament tears, can increase the likelihood of developing osteoarthritis later in life. 
  • Overuse: Repetitive stress on a joint due to occupation, sports, or other activities can contribute to the development of osteoarthritis. 
  • Genetics: Certain genetic factors can make an individual more susceptible to osteoarthritis. 
  • Obesity: Excessive weight places additional stress on joints, especially in weight-bearing areas like the knees and hips, which can accelerate cartilage breakdown.  

Elderly couple experiencing osteoarthritis in the knee.

Symptoms of Osteoarthritis

Symptoms of Osteoarthritis tend to build over time and may be intermittent. Here’s what to look for:

  1. Pain or aching in a joint during activity, after long activity, or at the end of the day. 
  2. Join stiffness that usually occurs first thing in the morning or after resting. 
  3. Limited range of motion that may go away after movement. 
  4. Clicking or popping sound when a joint bends. 
  5. Swelling around a joint. 
  6. Muscle weakness around the joint. 
  7. Joint instability or buckling. 

Pain, reduced mobility, side effects from medications, and other factors associated with osteoarthritis can lead to further health complications that are not caused by the disease itself. Physical activity is not the only key to managing osteoarthritis symptoms; it can also help manage weight gain leading to obesity, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure. 

Osteoarthritis Treatment

Since there is no cure, doctors typically prescribe treatment with a combination of therapies. Many will suggest Physical Therapy as a natural way to alleviate painful symptoms and avoid future flare-ups. Here are a few strategies to help manage the condition.  

1. Increase Physical Activity:

Muscle strengthening and exercise have profound effects on the body. It can improve weight issues, strengthen supporting muscle and joint structures, and help lubricate joints. 

2. Medication:

Over-the-counter pain relievers and prescription drugs can help relieve the acute symptoms caused by osteoarthritis.

3. Physical Therapy:

Physical Therapists specialize in musculoskeletal conditions. They analyze movement patterns, address deficiencies and prescribe exercises that help manage the symptoms. Physical therapy is often hailed as one of the most effective and long-term treatment methods available for osteoarthritis. 

4. Supportive Devices: 

Doctors may prescribe supportive devices such as crutches, braces or canes to relieve stress placed on your joints. 

5. Surgical Procedures: 

In some cases, osteoarthritis has advanced to the point where surgical intervention is necessary. Modern joint replacements and surgical fusions are available if other treatment methods have not been effective. 

Elderly adults swimming in pool


With the possibility of developing osteoarthritis being so common, there are strategies you can implement now to reduce your risk of developing this condition. We recommend that if you are experiencing symptoms of what may be osteoarthritis, get evaluated. The CDC recommends five self-managing strategies:
  1. Learn self-management: Several strategies can be implemented into your daily life to help reduce the risks of developing osteoarthritis. Our doctors of physical therapy can educate you on strategies to reduce your risk of developing osteoarthritis as well as teach you strategies to manage existing symptoms. 
  2. Get physically active: Experts recommend that adults get 150 minutes of at least moderate physical activity per week. Every minute of activity counts, and any level of activity is better than none. Moderate, low-impact activities recommended include walking, swimming or cycling. 
  3. See a physician: You can take an active role in controlling your arthritis by attending regular appointments with a healthcare provider and following your recommended treatment plan. This is especially important in you have chronic conditions like diabetes or heart disease.  
  4. Weight loss: For people who are overweight, losing weight reduces pressure on joints, especially weight-bearing joints like the hips and knees. Maintaining a health weight can relieve pain, improve function, and slow the progression of osteoarthritis. 
  5. Protect your joints: Join injuries can cause or worsen arthritis. Choose activities that are easy on the joints. Low-impact activities have a lower risk of injury and reduce stress on joints.
If you or someone your know is suffering from the painful symptoms of osteoarthritis, our team of experts can help. By analyzing your movement patterns, our therapists will prescribe treatment plans that reduce the painful symptoms associated with osteoarthritis and equip you with strategies to avoid future flare-ups. 

In good health,

Ruben Salinas, PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS\