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Center for Joint Replacement

Knee Pain and Osteoarthritis

  1. What is osteoarthritis (OA)?
  2. What causes knee OA?
  3. What are the symptoms of knee OA?
  4. How is knee OA diagnosed?
  5. How is knee OA treated?
  6. Tips to help you manage osteoarthritis

What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common type of arthritis that affects nearly 20 million Americans. 

Often called "wear and tear" arthritis, OA is a chronic condition characterized by the breakdown of joint cartilage. Cartilage is the part of the joint that cushions the ends of the bones and allows the joint to move easily. When cartilage breaks down, the bones rub against each other, causing stiffness, pain and loss of movement in the joint.


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OA generally occurs in three stages. It most often begins in the inside (medial compartment) of the knee joint, but may begin in the outside (lateral compartment). This is considered early stage OA. If left untreated, OA in one area may progress into a second area causing increased pain and loss of movement. This is considered mid-stage disease.

When the OA affects all three areas of the knee (inside, outside and under the knee cap), pain is often severe and treatment is generally limited to total knee replacement

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What causes knee OA?

Although the root cause of OA is unknown, the risk of developing it is influenced by many factors such as age, gender and inherited traits that can affect the shape and stability of your knee joint. Other risk factors can include:

  • A previous knee injury
  • Repetitive strain on the knee
  • Improper knee joint alignment 
  • Being overweight 
  • Exercise or sports-generated stress placed on the knee joints 

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What are the symptoms of knee OA?

Symptoms of knee OA include:

  • Knee pain or stiffness with activity or after periods of inactivity  
  • Swelling in one or more areas of the knee 
  • A grating, catching or crunching sensation in the knee during use
  • Knee instability

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How is knee OA diagnosed?

Your physician will review your medical history and your symptoms. He or she will observe the natural movement of your knee and check your reflexes, muscle strength, range of motion and stability in the affected knee. Tests like X-rays, computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be done to determine how much joint or bone damage has occurred, how much cartilage has been lost, and if there are bone spurs present. 

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How is knee OA treated?

Whether your OA is mild or severe, your physician will most likely recommend certain lifestyle changes to reduce stress on your knee joint. These may include:

  • Weight loss
  • Activity modification such as rest or low impact physical activity
  • Anti-inflammatory pain medications
  • Use of heat or cold
  • Physical therapy
  • Joint protection or bracing
  • Topical pain relieving creams

More invasive options may include steroid (cortisone) or artificial joint fluid injections, or knee arthroscopy.

If your symptoms aren't responding to non surgical treatment solutions, or if your pain can no longer be controlled by medication, talk to your physician. You could be a candidate for knee replacement surgery.

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Tips to Help You Manage Osteoarthritis

  • Maintain a healthy weight to reduce levels of painful swelling your joints.
  • Know your physical limitations and how to reduce activity when pain persists.
  • Take medications as prescribed by your doctor.
  • If advised, use assistance devices such as a walker or cane to put less stress on your joints.
  • Maintain good posture to reduce the strain placed on your joints.
  • Wear comfortable, properly-fitting shoes that support your weight.
  • Keep a positive outlook to help manage stress and maintain control of your treatment. 
  • Maintain a proactive role in managing your disease so that you can live as close to your normal lifestyle without aggravating your condition.

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