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National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases

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What Is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis (AH-stee-oh-ar-THREYE-tis) is the most common type of arthritis, and is seen especially among older people. Sometimes it is called degenerative joint disease or osteoarthrosis.

Osteoarthritis mostly affects cartilage (KAR-til-uj), the hard but slippery tissue that covers the ends of bones where they meet to form a joint. Healthy cartilage allows bones to glide over one another. It also absorbs energy from the shock of physical movement. In osteoarthritis, the surface layer of cartilage breaks down and wears away. This allows bones under the cartilage to rub together, causing pain, swelling, and loss of motion of the joint. Over time, the joint may lose its normal shape. Also, small deposits of bone – called osteophytes or bone spurs – may grow on the edges of the joint. Bits of bone or cartilage can break off and float inside the joint space. This causes more pain and damage.

People with osteoarthritis usually have joint pain and some movement limitations. Unlike some other forms of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis affects only joint function and does not affect skin tissue, the lungs, the eyes, or the blood vessels.

In rheumatoid arthritis, the second most common form of arthritis, the immune system attacks the tissues of the joints, leading to pain, inflammation, and eventually joint damage and malformation. It typically begins at a younger age than osteoarthritis, causes swelling and redness in joints, and may make people feel sick, tired, and uncommonly feverish.

Who Has Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is by far the most common type of arthritis, and the percentage of people who have it grows higher with age. An estimated 12.1 percent of the U.S. population (nearly 21 million Americans) age 25 and older have osteoarthritis.

Although osteoarthritis is more common in older people, younger people can develop it – usually as the result of a joint injury, a joint malformation, or a genetic defect in joint cartilage. Both men and women have the disease. Before age 45, more men than women have osteoarthritis; after age 45, it is more common in women. It is also more likely to occur in people who are overweight and in those with jobs that stress particular joints.

As the population ages, the number of people with osteoarthritis will only grow. By 2030, 20 percent of Americans – about 72 million people – will have passed their 65th birthday and will be at high risk for the disease.

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