Osteoarthritis (OA) | Causes and management

Degenerative joint disease (Osteoarthritis)


Osteoarthritis, the most common form of joint disease, is chiefly a disease of aging. Ninety percent of all people have radiographic features of osteoarthritis in weight-bearing joints by age 40. Symptomatic disease also increases with age. Sex is also a risk factor; osteoarthritis develops in women more frequently than in men.

This arthropathy is characterized by degeneration of cartilage and by hypertrophy of bone at the articular margins. Inflammation is usually minimal. Hereditary and mechanical factors may be involved in the pathogenesis.

Obesity is a risk factor for osteoarthritis of the knee, hand, and probably of the hip. Recreational running does not increase the incidence of osteoarthritis, but participation in competitive contact sports does. Jobs requiring frequent bending and carrying increase the risk of knee osteoarthritis

Signs and symptoms

Degenerative joint disease is divided into two types: (1) primary, which most commonly affects some or all of the following: the DIP and the proximal interphalangeal (PIP) joints of the fingers, the carpometacarpal joint of the thumb, the hip, the knee, the metatarsophalangeal (MTP) joint of the big toe, and the cervical and lumbar spine; and (2) secondary, which may occur in any joint as a sequela to articular injury resulting from either intra-articular (includ­ing rheumatoid arthritis) or extra-articular causes. The injury may be acute, as in a fracture; or chronic, as that due to occupational overuse of a joint or metabolic disease (eg, hyperparathyroidism, hemochromatosis, ochronosis).


The onset is insidious. Initially, there is articular stiffness, seldom lasting more than 15 minutes; this develops later into pain on motion of the affected joint and is made worse by activity or weight bearing and relieved by rest. Flexion con­tracture or varus deformity of the knee is not unusual, and bony enlargements of the DIP (Heberden nodes) and PIP (Bouchard nodes) are occasionally prominent. There is no ankylosis, but limitation of motion of the affected joint or joints is common. Crepitus may often be felt over the knee. Joint effusion and other articular signs of inflammation are mild. There are no systemic manifestations.


Osteoarthritis does not cause elevation of the erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) or other laboratory signs of inflammation. Synovial fluid is noninflammatory.

Radiographs may reveal narrowing of the joint space; osteophyte formation and lipping of marginal bone; and thickened, dense subchondral bone. Bone cysts may also be present.

Because articular inflammation is minimal and systemic manifestations are absent, degenerative joint disease should seldom be confused with other arthritides. The distribution of joint involvement in the hands also helps distinguish osteoarthritis from rheumatoid arthritis. Osteoarthritis chiefly affects the DIP and PIP joints and spares the wrist and metacarpophalangeal (MCP) joints; rheumatoid arthritis involves the wrists and MCP joints and spares the DIP joints.

Furthermore, the joint enlargement is bony-hard and cool in osteoarthritis but spongy and warm in rheumatoid arthritis. Skeletal symptoms due to degenerative changes in joints—especially in the spine—may cause coexistent metastatic neoplasia, osteoporosis, plasma cell myeloma, or other bone disease to be overlooked.


Patients with osteoarthritis of the hand may benefit from assistive devices and instruction on techniques for joint pro­tection; splinting is beneficial for those with symptomatic osteoarthritis of the first carpometacarpal joint. Patients with mild to moderate osteoarthritis of the knee or hip should participate in a regular exercise program (eg, a supervised walking program, hydrotherapy classes) and, if overweight, should lose weight. The use of assistive devices (eg, a cane on the contralateral side) can improve functional status.

Medical Management

Acetaminophen: Patients with mild osteoarthritis may benefit from acetaminophen (2.6–4 g/day orally). Growing awareness of the danger of hepatotoxicity from high doses of acetaminophen and clearer appreciation that its impact on pain is frequently neglible, acetaminophen is no longer recommended as first-line treatment for osteoarthritis of the hip or knee.

Topical therapies: Topical nonsteroidal anti-inflamma­tory drugs (NSAIDs) (eg, 4 g of diclofenac gel 1% applied to the affected joint four times daily) appear more effective than placebo for knee and hand osteoarthritis and have lower rates of systemic side effects than with oral NSAIDs. Few studies have compared the efficacy of oral and topical NSAIDs. Because of their attractive safety profile, topical NSAIDs should be considered early in the treatment of patients with mild osteoarthritis affecting a few joints, especially of the hand or knee.

Topical capsaicin may be of benefit for osteoarthritis of the hand or the knee.

Oral NSAIDs: NSAIDs are more effec­tive than acetaminophen for osteoarthritis but have greater toxicity. NSAIDs inhibit cyclooxygenase (COX), the enzyme that converts arachidonic acid to prostaglan­dins. Prostaglandins play important roles in promoting inflammation, but they also help maintain homeostasis in several organs—especially the stomach, where prostaglandin E serves as a local hormone responsible for gastric mucosal cytoprotection. COX exists in two isomers—COX-1, which is expressed continuously in many cells and is responsible for the homeostatic effects of prostaglandins, and COX-2, which is induced by cytokines and expressed in inflamma­tory tissues. Most NSAIDs inhibit both isomers. Celecoxib is the only selective COX-2 inhibitor currently available in the United States.


Intra-articular injections: Many patients with moder­ately severe osteoarthritis of the knee who do not respond to NSAIDs receive intra-articular injections of corticoste­roids, hyaluronate, or platelet-rich plasma. Although each of these can temporarily reduce pain, none has convinc­ingly produced long-term benefits in reducing pain or preserving function. For example, a 2-year controlled trial demonstrated that injecting the knee with triamcinolone every 6 months was no more effective than injecting saline in reducing knee pain. The American College of Rheuma­tology does not recommend corticosteroid injections for osteoarthritis of the hand.

Surgical Measures

Total hip and knee replacements provide excellent symp­tomatic and functional improvement when involvement of that joint severely restricts walking or causes pain at rest, particularly at night. Arthroscopic surgery for knee osteo­arthritis is ineffective.


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