Symptoms of Osteoarthritis

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on May 15, 2024
8 min read

Osteoarthritis is a disease that makes your joints painful and stiff. Unlike many other forms of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus, osteoarthritis does not affect your organs. 

The most common symptom of osteoarthritis (sometimes called degenerative arthritis) is pain in a joint after you use it over and over, such as when your knees ache after a day of bending up and down while gardening. Joint pain is usually worse later in the day. Joints affected by osteoarthritis might be swollen, feel warm, and make a creaking sound. Your joints might also hurt and feel stiff after you have been inactive for a while, such as when you get up from sitting in a theater for a few hours. If you have severe osteoarthritis, the cartilage (or padding) between bones is worn down, resulting in friction that causes pain with slight movements. 

Symptoms of osteoarthritis vary greatly from person to person. For some people, osteoarthritis can be crippling and greatly limit their activity. On the other hand, others may have few symptoms even though their joints are badly damaged. Symptoms of osteoarthritis may come and go. It’s not unusual for people who have osteoarthritis of the hands and knees to be pain-free for years before their symptoms return.

Where you might have osteoarthritis symptoms

Signs of osteoarthritis can emerge when the protective cartilage between two bones wears away. That makes your bones rub against one another, which causes pain and other symptoms of osteoarthritis. Some joints that are often affected by osteoarthritis include those in the knees, hands, spine, and hips. The symptoms you feel will vary, depending on what joint has osteoarthritis and how severe it is. 

This form of osteoarthritis happens when the protective cartilage in the bones that form the knee joint wears away. Anyone can get osteoarthritis of the knees, but it’s more common in people who are obese. The knee pain caused by osteoarthritis usually has these features:

  • It starts out mild but gets worse over time. 
  • Your knees feel worse after they get a lot of use, such as after you climb stairs or bend down repeatedly.
  • The pain usually eases when you rest, though standing after a long period of inactivity can cause symptoms to return. 
  • The pain comes with stiffness and swelling in the joint.
  • You may notice a grating or scraping feeling when you move your knee. 
  • Your knee pain may force you to limit your activity.
  • The symptoms improve if you take a pain reliever or you put ice on the joint. 

How bad can osteoarthritis knee pain get?

Knee osteoarthritis often responds well to conservative treatments such as pain relievers and ice therapy. But in some cases, as you lose more cartilage between bones, the knee joint can degenerate and cause you to limp. The more cartilage you lose, the worse your limp can become. That helps explain why severe osteoarthritis of the knees is one of the most common reasons that people have total knee replacement surgery in the United States.

Why does arthritis cause swelling in the knee?

As you lose cartilage in the knee, the joint can get inflammation, which is the body’s response to injury. Swelling is a common feature of inflammation. It happens as blood vessels become dilated (wider) and permeable (meaning cells pass in and out of them more easily).

You may not realize it, but you have 29 bones in each hand. Those bones form joints, which can have osteoarthritis symptoms that may make it harder and even impossible to do simple daily tasks like opening a jar or tying a shoe. Hand osteoarthritis is more common in women than in men. Typical symptoms of hand osteoarthritis include:

  • Pain
  • Stiffness
  • Reduced grip strength and limited movement
  • Enlarged finger joints

Does hand osteoarthritis itch?

Itching is not a common symptom of hand osteoarthritis. But some pain relievers that are sometimes prescribed for osteoarthritis can cause itching.

Osteoarthritis in the shoulder isn’t as common as osteoarthritis in other parts of the body, such as the knee or hip. Still, about one in three adults will get signs of osteoarthritis in the shoulder, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Common symptoms of osteoarthritis in the shoulder include:

  • Pain when you use your shoulder, such as when you play tennis or hoist a heavy object
  • Over time, pain may become worse and more persistent.
  • Pain that keeps you up at night
  • Stiffness and limited range of motion – you may have a hard time raising your arm, for example. 
  • Discomfort in the back or top of the shoulder
  • A grinding or clicking sound when you move your shoulder

The hip is a large joint that’s formed by the thigh bone and pelvic bone, which attach like a ball and socket. If cartilage between these bones wears away, the bones rub against one another, which can cause painful formations called bone spurs to develop. You may also feel pain from hip osteoarthritis in your thigh, butt, and even down your legs. Other symptoms include:

  • Stiffness that can make it hard to walk
  • A feeling like your hip is “locking” in place
  • A grinding noise when you walk

What to do if you wake up with osteoarthritis stiffness

Morning stiffness is common in people who have osteoarthritis. It usually only lasts a half-hour or so, and fades as you move around, which helps to recirculate joint lubricant called synovial fluid. If you want to feel more spry sooner after you rise, these steps can help. 

  • Take a warm shower.
  • Do some light stretching.
  • If you use anti-inflammatory medication, take it when you wake up. 

The spine is a long column of bones that extends from the base of your skull to your tailbone. Spinal osteoarthritis can affect joints that connect all of those bones. Symptoms include:

  • Pain in the neck and/or back (especially the lower back)
  • Stiffness that makes it hard to straighten your back or turn your neck
  • Your vertebrae (the bumps along your spine) become swollen and tender to the touch.
  • A grinding sensation in your spine when you move
  • Feeling of grinding when moving the spine
  • Headaches, which may be related to neck osteoarthritis

Does osteoarthritis cause a burning pain?

Typically, osteoarthritis causes pain, stiffness, and swelling. But some types, such as hand osteoarthritis, may cause a burning sensation. 

Osteoarthritis usually happens in older people. When a person under 55 has this condition, it’s called early-onset osteoarthritis. Studies show that early-onset osteoarthritis is becoming more common. For example, a 2024 study found that rates of early-onset osteoarthritis have doubled over the last few decades. Another recent study found that the most common form of this joint disease to be diagnosed in people between the ages 30 and 44 is knee osteoarthritis.

How do you get early-onset osteoarthritis?

Doctors have long known that obesity increases the risk of knee osteoarthritis. Rates of obesity are rising among younger people, especially among young women, in most parts of the world. That’s a clue that may explain why some younger people get early-onset osteoarthritis. Having a history of joint injuries can also make you more likely to get osteoarthritis at a young age. Finally, some early research hints that a risk of having early-onset osteoarthritis may be passed down in families.

Osteoarthritis is a progressive disease, meaning that it can get worse over time. Symptoms such as swelling and stiffness may happen more often and be more bothersome. You may find it even harder to climb out of bed in the morning or simply stand up from an easy chair. 

With advanced osteoarthritis, you may also find that your symptoms never seem to take a break. For example, if you have knee osteoarthritis, your leg joint may hurt all the time, even when you’re resting. Your knee may also become unstable and lock up or buckle when you try to walk on it. 

Some people with osteoarthritis eventually get painful growths called bone spurs in affected joints, and bone can wear away, or erode. If you have advanced osteoarthritis in a joint such as the knee or hip, you may be a candidate for surgery to implant an artificial joint. 

Some clues that you should see a doctor to find out if you have osteoarthritis include:

  • You have persistent pain, swelling, or stiffness in one or more joints, especially if symptoms last 3 days or longer. 
  • A joint that’s red and tender to the touch should be checked out, too.
  • Treatments like ice and pain relievers don’t help. 
  • Your joint still hurts when you rest it.
  • Joint symptoms are keeping you from doing normal daily activities.

Osteoarthritis causes joints to become achy, swollen, and stiff. Early symptoms may be mild but can progress and become crippling. Your knees and hips are among the joints that get osteoarthritis most often, but even the small joints in your fingers can be affected. See a doctor if pain, stiffness, and other osteoarthritis symptoms persist and interfere with your daily activities. 

What is the best way to treat osteoarthritis? There is no single best treatment for osteoarthritis. Simple treatments that may help ease symptoms that you probably have at home include ice packs and heating pads. Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen, can be used too. If those don’t help, your doctor may recommend physical therapy and prescription medication. For severe cases of osteoarthritis, joint replacement surgery may be necessary.

How do you cope with osteoarthritis?

Living with osteoarthritis can be frustrating and leave you feeling down, but these strategies can help make your days more rewarding:

  • Eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly. 
  • Take all medicine your doctor prescribes as directed. 
  • Use assistive devices, such as reachers to grab things off high shelves, and wide-handled utensils for eating, which are easier to grip. 
  • Instead of struggling with buttons, buy clothes with zippers and Velcro fastenings. 
  • Join a support group for people with arthritis; the Arthritis Foundation can help you find one. 

What should you not do with osteoarthritis? To protect your joints from further damage, avoid high-impact exercises such as jogging or basketball. Instead, choose low-impact activities, like walking, bicycling, or water aerobics. Avoid gaining weight – obesity makes osteoarthritis worse. Don’t take dietary supplements marketed for relieving arthritis symptoms without telling your doctor. Most of these products are not well-studied and could be harmful. 

Will osteoarthritis get worse? Symptoms of osteoarthritis can get worse over time, but you can take steps to slow the progress of this joint condition. Maintaining a healthy weight is a good start, since obesity is closely linked to osteoarthritis. Eating a healthy diet can also help prevent type 2 diabetes, which recent research suggests may make osteoarthritis worse. Getting plenty of exercise is essential, too.