Osteoarthritis is caused by wear and tear on your joints over time. Many factors, including genetics, may increase your risk of developing this progressive disease.

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Osteoarthritis (OA) is a condition that affects more than 32.5 million adults in the United States. It’s the most common type of arthritis in older people and a common cause of disability in adults. If you have a family history of OA, you have a higher risk of developing it.

Here’s more about OA, how genetics play into the disease, and what other factors may put you at risk.

There is cushioning (joint cartilage) between the bones throughout your body. In OA, these tissues degrade over time. When the cushioning breaks down, you may experience changes in your joints that make everyday tasks harder and less comfortable to do.

Symptoms include:

  • joint pain that gets better when you’re not using the joint
  • stiffness in your joints in the morning or after periods of rest
  • swelling of the joint with use
  • instability and limited mobility in your joints
  • pain during sleep (in later stages of OA)

There is no cure for OA, but lifestyle changes, medication, surgery, and other treatments may help.

There is a genetic component to OA. This means that if you have a family history of the disease, you may be more likely to develop it than someone who does not have that history. But that doesn’t mean your genes directly cause OA. It’s more complicated than that and involves other factors, such as your lifestyle, weight, and occupation.

“Heritability” is a term geneticists use to measure how the differences in a person’s genes influence their traits. The higher the percentage, the more likely it is that the influence is related to genetics.

Research suggests that the heritability of OA in the spine is 70%; in the hand, 65%; in the hip, 60%; and in the knee, 40%.

There are many gene variants — more than 100 — that may contribute to the development of OA. In a 2015 review of studies, researchers focused on several groups of genes related to the following factors:

Cartilage extracellular matrix structure

Variations in the genes COL2A1, COL9A3, and COL11A1 may affect the cartilage and connective tissues that stabilize your muscles and joints. Mutations in these genes are linked to faster wear in your knees and hips.

Bone density

The genes vitamin D receptor (VDR) and estrogen receptor alpha (ESR1) affect the estrogen receptors and may increase the overall risk of developing OA and knee OA. Changes to VDR can influence the development of OA in your hands.

Chondrocyte cell signaling

Variations in the genes BMP5, FRZB, and IL-4Rα primarily affect females, increasing their chances of developing OA in the hips, knees, and other joints.

Inflammatory cytokine

The genes IL-1, IL-10, TGFB1, IL-6, and TNFα affect inflammation in the synovium (lining) of your joints. Inflammation can lead to a breakdown of cartilage that affects your hands, knees, and hips.

Any activity that taxes your joints repeatedly may lead to OA over time. For example, if you have joint injuries, joint structure abnormalities, or joint cartilage issues, you are more likely to develop OA.

Occupations that involve a lot of kneeling, heavy lifting, and other physical labor may also contribute to OA.

Type of OAOccupation groups
knee• agricultural workers
• construction workers
• fishery and forestry workers
• firefighters
• miners
• plumbers
hip• agricultural workers
• construction workers
• cleaners
• fishery and forestry workers
• firefighters
• food processing workers
• mail carriers
• miners
spine and neck• meat carriers
• dentists
• miners
hand and shoulder• cotton workers
• dentists
• construction workers
foot• dancers
• people whose work requires climbing stairs

While genetics is one of the main risk factors for OA, other factors may also increase your risk of developing the disease:

  • Age: Risk increases with age and is highest in people ages 50 years and older.
  • Gender: Women are at higher risk than men.
  • Weight: Obesity is a risk factor — excess weight taxes joints in the knees and hips.
  • Race: Certain Asian populations have a lower risk of developing OA.
  • Health history: Injuries and overuse of joints put you at higher risk.

Again, there is no cure for OA. The disease is progressive, meaning that it can get worse over time. Treatment and lifestyle changes can help you manage the disease, increase your mobility, and improve your quality of life.

How is OA treated?

Your doctor may suggest medications (over-the-counter or prescription) to ease arthritis pain and inflammation. Other possible treatments for OA include physical therapy, joint injections, and joint replacement surgery.

Is it OK to exercise with arthritis?

Yes. Exercise isn’t just OK to do — it’s recommended to help you retain mobility and strength. The following activities are good options:

What are other forms of arthritis?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the other most common types of arthritis are gout, fibromyalgia, and rheumatoid arthritis.