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With osteoarthritis, or degenerative arthritis, the cartilage that cushions joints loses its elasticity and wears away in places. This makes your bones rub together, causing pain, stiffness and swelling.

In addition to wear and tear, research by rheumatologists at Rush and other centers suggests that inflammation may contribute to the development of osteoarthritis.

Osteoarthritis can affect any joint, but typically it affects weight-bearing joints such as the knees, hips and spine, and other mechanically loaded joints such as the base of the thumb. It is a degenerative condition, meaning it gets worse over time, and there is no cure. 

Osteoarthritis: what you should know

  • Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis — and its main symptom is pain. You might feel stiffness in a joint when getting out of bed or a crunching feeling of bone rubbing on bone.
  • Osteoarthritis involves only your joints and does not cause fever or rashes. Rheumatoid arthritis, however, is an autoimmune disease that affects your entire body, including vital organs.
  • Nearly everyone has evidence of the osteoarthritis process by the time they are 70, though not everyone has pain. While aging is the main risk factor, there are others, including the following:
    • Being overweight
    • Injury to a joint, especially common in high-impact sports
    • Overusing a joint
    • Having a family history of osteoarthritis

How can I get help for osteoarthritis?

  • See your primary care doctor if you have any of the following symptoms:
    • Persistent joint pain
    • Significant swelling
    • Painful stiffness
    • Joint pain at night
    • Pain during routine activities
  • If you have osteoarthritis, you might be referred to a rheumatologist, a doctor who specializes in diseases of the joints, muscles and bones. Rheumatologists at Rush have extensive experience diagnosing and treating osteoarthritis. Their goal is to treat you in ways that improve your mobility and control your pain.

Care for osteoarthritis at Rush

At Rush, osteoarthritis care is tailored to fit your needs, lifestyle and bone health. Your care plan might involve one or more of these treatments:

  • Medications, such as the following:
    • Over-the-counter pain relievers, like acetaminophen and ibuprofen
    • Prescription medications, often including stronger pain relievers
    • Corticosteroid injections to relieve pain and ease inflammation
    • Hyaluronic acid injections, which use a gel-like fluid to replace the key substance that lubricates joints
  • Heat or ice:
    • Heat increases blood flow to your joints, easing pain and stiffness
    • Cold packs reduce inflammation, relieving pain or numbing the joint
    • Check with your doctors to find out which is best for you
  • Nutritional counseling:
    • Maintaining a healthy weight and good nutrition will keep you mobile and strong
    • Clinical dieticians at Rush can help you develop a sensible nutrition plan
  • Physical therapy and/or occupational therapy to help you regain your strength and mobility, as well as perform daily activities:
    • Stretching exercises increase your flexibility and decrease pain and stiffness
    • Strength training helps you maintain muscle strength to support and protect joints
    • Customized splints will support your hands and wrists, including after surgery
    • Therapists can recommend strategies to reduce pain and stress on the joints, as well as overcome the challenges of living with chronic arthritis
  • Acupuncture:
    • Licensed acupuncture therapists can reduce pain by inserting fine needles into the skin at specific points on the body
  • Surgery:
    • If nonsurgical treatments are not relieving your pain and helping you move around better, surgery may be your best option, and you will be referred to an orthopedic surgeon at Rush
    • The surgeon will discuss your options — including partial and total joint replacement — with you
  • Cartilage restoration:
    • Specialists at the Cartilage Restoration Center at Rush perform a variety of techniques to repair or replace damaged cartilage before more advanced deterioration occurs. This can help delay or prevent the need for joint replacement surgery in young, active patients.

Why choose Rush for osteoarthritis care

  • Researchers at Rush are investigating the role of inflammation in osteoarthritis. They are seeking new ways to diagnose patients as well as new therapies for patients like you.
  • At Rush, you have access to clinical trials for therapies not otherwise widely available. For example, orthopedic surgeons are studying whether platelet-rich plasma can alleviate the symptoms of knee osteoarthritis or slow the progression of the disease.
  • For patients who need surgery, Rush has specialists who are worldwide leaders in surgical procedures to repair or replace damaged joints. The orthopedics program at Rush is consistently ranked among the best in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.

Departments and programs that treat this condition