Osteoarthritis: Definition and What It Is

Medically and clinically reviewed by Jonathan Lee, MD and Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT

Osteoarthritis Definition and Meaning

Arthritis, by definition, means inflammation or swelling in the joints. Osteoarthritis (OA), the most common type of arthritis, occurs when the protective cartilage that cushions the ends of bones changes over time. This can happen in any joint, including those in the hands, neck, knee, ankle, wrist, and hips. For some, it can cause symptoms such as pain and stiffness that tend to worsen after activity.

Osteoarthritis vs. Rheumatoid Arthritis 

Osteoarthritis is characterized by gradual cartilage changes in a joint. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the healthy tissue lining the joints, causing chronic inflammation. Unlike OA, which might occur in just one part of the body, rheumatoid arthritis tends to be symmetrical and impacts multiple joints throughout the body. So if you only have arthritis in one shoulder, for instance, the discomfort is less likely to be RA or another form of inflammatory arthritis.

Osteoarthritis Symptoms

Individuals with osteoarthritis may experience a range of symptoms, including joint pain, achiness, stiffness, and tenderness. This, in turn, can lead to loss of flexibility and range of motion, which can make daily activities such as walking, bending, or climbing stairs, more difficult. Some may experience swelling (due to increased fluid in the joints) or feel a grating or cracking sensation within the joint when they move. 

Osteoarthritis: A Hinge Health Perspective

Everyone’s experience with osteoarthritis is unique. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to managing OA. And while reading about arthritis may feel scary or like your joints are “damaged,” there’s a lot that’s in your control to manage the symptoms of osteoarthritis

Many people worry that exercise will make their osteoarthritis pain worse, may not be safe for their joints, or do more damage. All of these are myths. In fact, being sedentary is associated with worsening arthritis symptoms. Targeted exercises and stretches, on the other hand, can help keep cartilage healthy and strengthen weaker muscles that often accompany arthritis and contribute to pain. 

And beyond the physical benefits (decreased pain and stiffness), exercise therapy for osteoarthritis boasts psychological benefits (improved emotional well-being), and functional benefits (more independence and improved ability to do daily tasks). No matter what symptoms you have, movement is medicine for osteoarthritis.  

Osteoarthritis Treatment

In addition to exercise therapy, there are a range of treatment options that can help manage the symptoms of osteoarthritis, including over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication, steroid injections, and ice and heat to reduce swelling. Lifestyle modifications, like focusing on gentler movements and modifications for the affected joints, eating a healthier diet, and prioritizing sleep can all help ease osteoarthritis symptoms. 

How Physical Therapy Can Help With Osteoarthritis

Physical therapy can help provide pain relief and improve joint function. Physical therapists (PTs) may recommend various techniques, including specific exercises that can strengthen the muscles surrounding the joint, which can alleviate undue stress on the joint itself and improve overall stability and function. 

PTs often use other methods, such as heat and cold therapy, to ease joint pain and swelling. And they can recommend adaptive equipment, like a key turner tool or grip wrench, to make everyday tasks easier by allowing you to engage larger joints to complete tasks that usually require more dexterity in smaller joints. You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.

How Hinge Health Can Help You 

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you. 

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. 

Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you. See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.


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