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What Does Osteoarthritis Feel Like?

What to Expect If You're Diagnosed With Osteoarthritis

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Updated May 06, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis, affecting nearly 27 million adults in the United States. It's easy to find a list of symptoms associated with osteoarthritis and information on how it can affect almost every aspect of daily life. But, on any given day, from the time you wake up until the time you go to bed, what does it feel like to have osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis and Joint Pain

With osteoarthritis, affected joints are painful. Most people describe osteoarthritis pain as achy, not sharp. But truly that depends on the extent of the joint damage. The pain is not the same for every person who has osteoarthritis, nor does any individual experience the pain exactly the same every day.

Pain develops as cartilage wears away, leaving the underlying bone vulnerable to damage. In early stages of the disease, joints may ache after physical work or activity, and be relieved by rest.

Joint Stiffness

The affected joints are typically stiff -- so that it's hard to move them through their normal range of motion -- especially after waking up in the morning or staying in one position for an extended period of time. As the disease progresses, joint pain and joint stiffness become more persistent.

Swelling, Crepitus, and Joints That Stick

There can also be swelling in one or more joints, in which case they may be tender to the touch. Another characteristic of osteoarthritis is crepitus, a crunching feeling or grating -- the sound of bone rubbing on bone. It is also not uncommon for joints affected by osteoarthritis to "lock".

Osteoarthritis or Another Type of Arthritis?

With osteoarthritis, the pain and stiffness is usually limited to the affected joints. The joints most commonly affected by osteoarthritis are those at the ends of the fingers, thumbs, neck, lower back, knees, and hips.

If you feel warmth or your skin appears red around a joint, that is an indication of inflammation. You may have rheumatoid arthritis or another inflammatory arthritis rather than osteoarthritis. Fever, flu-like symptoms, and malaise typically accompany inflammatory types of arthritis rather than osteoarthritis.

For an accurate diagnosis, see your doctor. Don't ignore symptoms or assume they will go away.

Sources:
Osteoarthritis. Handout on Health. NIAMS. May 2006.
http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Osteoarthritis/default.asp

Primer of the Rheumatic Diseases. Published by the Arthritis Foundation. Thirteenth edition.

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