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Causes of Osteoarthritis

What causes osteoarthritis?

Primary osteoarthritis is mostly related to aging. With aging, the water content of the cartilage increases and the protein makeup of cartilage degenerates. Repetitive use of the joints over the years causes damage to the cartilage that leads to joint pain and swelling. Eventually, cartilage begins to degenerate by flaking or forming tiny crevasses. In advanced cases, there is a total loss of the cartilage cushion between the bones of the joints. Loss of cartilage cushion causes friction between the bones, leading to pain and limitation of joint mobility. Damage to the cartilage can also stimulate new bone outgrowths (spurs) to form around the joints. Osteoarthritis occasionally can be found in multiple members of the same family, implying an heredity (genetic) basis for this condition. Rarely, some of these hereditary cases of osteoarthritis are caused by defects in collagen, which is an important component of cartilage.

Arthritic Joints

Secondary osteoarthritis is caused by another disease or condition. Conditions that can lead to secondary osteoarthritis include obesity, repeated trauma or surgery to the joint structures, abnormal joints at birth (congenital abnormalities), gout, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, and other hormone disorders.

Obesity causes osteoarthritis by increasing the mechanical stress on the cartilage. In fact, next to aging, obesity is the most powerful risk factor for osteoarthritis of the knees. The early development of osteoarthritis of the knees among weight lifters is believed to be in part due to their high body weight. Repeated trauma to joint tissues (ligaments, bones, and cartilage) is believed to lead to early osteoarthritis of the knees in soccer players. Interestingly, recent studies have not found an increased risk of osteoarthritis in long-distance runners.

Crystal deposits in the cartilage can cause cartilage degeneration, and osteoarthritis. Uric acid crystals cause arthritis in gout, while calcium pyrophosphate crystals cause arthritis in pseudogout.

Rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory conditions of the joints lead to joint damage and eventual degeneration of the cartilage and osteoarthritis.

Some people are born with abnormally formed joints (congenital abnormalities) that are vulnerable to mechanical wear, causing early degeneration and loss of joint cartilage. Osteoarthritis of the hip joints is commonly related to design abnormalities of these joints that had been present since birth.

Hormone disturbances, such as diabetes and growth hormone disorders, are also associated with early cartilage wear and secondary osteoarthritis.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by David T. Derrer, MD on December 28, 2013
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