Osteoarthritis Causes

Written by Valencia Higuera | Published on September 15, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on September 15, 2014

Causes of Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is a joint disease that develops when cartilage at the end of bones breaks down or wears away. This disease is also known as degenerative joint disease or degenerative arthritis, and it’s sometimes referred to as “wear-and-tear” arthritis. Damage from osteoarthritis causes pain and swollen joints.

Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis, affecting approximately 27 million Americans, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS). This type of arthritis can develop in any joint, such as the:

  • hands
  • neck
  • hips
  • knees
  • lower back

Age

Joint wear and tear can cause osteoarthritis and the risk of developing this condition increases with age. The disease affects people of all ages, but it’s more common in adults older than 65. Cartilage matrix is mostly water. Since the amount of water in cartilage can change with age, the tissue may become less flexible and porous, and more prone to damage. Loss of cushion creates friction between bones and causes painful swelling.

Gender

Women have a higher risk for developing osteoarthritis, but more men than women develop this condition before the age of 55. The number of women diagnosed with the disease increases after the age of 55, says the Arthritis Foundation. Women’s tendons and ligaments are more elastic and less stable than men. So, there’s a greater risk for joint injury in women. Estrogen levels can also drop after menopause and cause joint inflammation and cartilage damage.

Genetics

Genes and inherited bone abnormalities also play a role in osteoarthritis. Some people are born with a defect that affects how their body produces the protein that makes up cartilage (collagen). This defect causes weak cartilage around joints. Normal everyday activities can further damage weak cartilage, causing early wear and tear. Also, some activities can place excess pressure on your joints. This increases the risk of osteoarthritis as you become older.

Joint Injury or Overuse

A sports injury like an ACL tear or an accident that damages your cartilage or joints raises the risk of osteoarthritis. Repeatedly injuring the same joint also increases the risk. You may also develop this condition if your job involves repetitive movements. Some activities like constantly bending or operating a machine can overwork knee and hand joints and speed the break down of cartilage.

Obesity and Overweight

Extra pounds can put pressure on joints like the knees and hips. According to the Arthritis Foundation, every pound gained adds 4 pounds of pressure on your knees and six times the pressure on your hips. Obesity may also contribute to osteoarthritis. Excess body fat causes the body to produce an inflammatory chemical that may cause joint damage.

Inactive Lifestyle

Inactivity increases the risk for obesity and may lead to weak muscles. Weak muscles can’t properly support joints in the lower body. Getting involved in low-impact exercises like swimming can strengthen muscles and protect your joints. This lowers the risk for osteoarthritis.

Other Inflammatory Diseases

Being diagnosed with certain diseases also plays a role in osteoarthritis. These include inflammatory joint diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and gout. There’s also a higher risk for the disease if you’re diagnosed with:

  • Paget’s disease
  • Wilson disease
  • diabetes
  • hypothyroidism
  • Ehlers-Danlos syndrome

Outlook for Osteoarthritis

There’s no cure for osteoarthritis, but treatment can reduce symptoms and prevent joint replacement surgery and other complications. Over-the-counter and prescription medications may provide relief. Heat and cold therapy may also help. These remedies can reduce stiffness and pain. Doctors may also suggest physical therapy or occupational therapy.

Some people see improvement with lifestyle changes. Regular exercise can strengthen muscles, and losing weight may reduce joint pressure. Also, choosing workouts and jobs that don’t stress the joints can lower your chances of developing osteoarthritis. 

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