Bone & joint health Featured Musculoskeletal

Osteoarthritis: symptoms, treatment & reducing risk

Written by Lindsay Smith

One in five Canadians lives with arthritis, a term that describes the more than 100 diseases that causes redness, swelling, pain and, when it afflicts the joints, stiffness. It is the most common life-long disease in people 65 and over.

The most common type of arthritis is osteoarthritis, a progressive disease of the whole joint that leads to the breakdown of joint cartilage and the underlying bone. When there is too much breakdown in the cartilage, it can result in bones rubbing together, which causes swelling and pain.

Andrea Nunn is a physiotherapist at Sunnybrook’s Holland Centre, where she works with patients who have osteoarthritis in the hip or knee, providing exercises and education through the GLA:D Canada program. She also helps patients rehabilitate following joint replacement surgery. Andrea shares some insights into how to reduce your risk of osteoarthritis. Read those tips below, as well as information on signs, symptoms and treatment options from GLA:D Canada and the Arthritis Society of Canada.

Signs and symptoms of osteoarthritis

While osteoarthritis can occur in any cartilage-covered joint, it is especially common in the knees, hips and lower spine because of the load these joints bear on a daily basis.

Typically, symptoms may begin with pain, either in the knee when it is bearing weight (standing, walking, climbing), or in the hip joint. In the hands, osteoarthritis is most common in the ends of the fingers and base of the thumb, leaving them feeling stiff and tender.

People with arthritis may notice that daily tasks become more challenging, such as putting on socks, getting into a car or even clenching a fist.

Symptoms may begin slowly, starting as pain with movement and, as the arthritis progresses, the pain will likely become more constant. Most people will see progression slow, sometimes even stop completely, but others will experience rapid deterioration.

If you are experiencing new pain or stiffness in your joints, or reduced mobility that is making it difficult to do daily tasks you could do before, reach out to your family physician.


Since every patient will experience arthritis differently, doctors can’t predict how the disease will progress for an individual. It’s also why, even though a patient may get X-rays to see if there are any changes to the cartilage surrounding the joint, diagnosis is made based on symptoms because oftentimes, a patient is experiencing more severe symptoms than might be indicated in an X-ray.

There is no known cure for cartilage loss, so any treatments for arthritis are designed to reduce symptoms and improve joint function.


Osteoarthritis often causes pain, which can lead to people reducing their physical activity to accommodate the discomfort. According to GLA:D Canada, research has shown that reduced strength in the muscles can worsen arthritis symptoms, so maintaining consistent physical activity is important for patients with arthritis. Exercise can also improve overall health and wellness and quality of life.

People with arthritis can find benefit from improving strength, flexibility and cardiovascular fitness, but before beginning a new exercise program, speak with your family doctor.

Other treatment options

Other treatment options for arthritis can include referrals to healthcare professionals such physical therapists or occupational therapists. Medication is an option for pain management, and if arthritis becomes severe, surgery may be required. It’s important to stay in contact with your family physician who can help develop a plan of care based on Health Quality Ontario’s Quality Standards for Osteoarthritis. They can connect you with any other appropriate healthcare professionals to help manage arthritis symptoms and make a referral to a Rapid Access Clinic for assessment for surgery, if required.

Once diagnosed with osteoarthritis, you will have it for life, says Andrea, but symptoms will vary depending on the person and can be managed with treatment.

Reducing Risk

Andrea says there are several ways for people to reduce their risk of osteoarthritis.

“Preventing joint injury earlier in life can reduce your risk of developing osteoarthritis,” she says. “We’re seeing more joint injury prevention programs for young people playing sports now because there can be long-term consequences if you have traumatic injury to a joint, even as young as teenage years.”

Andrea says people who work in industries such as construction and are putting a lot of load on their joints on a daily basis should be aware of their risk of developing osteoarthritis and can take steps to reduce that likelihood.

“Trying to use ideal body mechanics is important—alignment of hip, knee and foot,” she says. “Being balanced in your whole posture and body will help too.”

Maintaining an optimal body weight can help prevent osteoarthritis. Andrea says two pounds of extra weight can increase the joint load by three to five times, which means that losing weight can improve symptoms of osteoarthritis.

Finally, Andrea says consistent movement and physical activity is important for healthy cartilage and strong muscles, both of which can reduce the risk of osteoarthritis.

“Muscles help absorb some of the load the joints would normally take,” she says. “They also help to improve stability of the joint.”

And she says cartilage needs “dynamic load” to stimulate it, so regular movement means the joints are loaded on a regular basis and that encourages cartilage to regenerate.

Living well with arthritis

Andrea emphasizes that an arthritis diagnosis doesn’t necessarily mean a lifetime of pain and discomfort. Symptoms can be managed, and with some simple adaptations (e.g. jar openers or sitting to put on socks and shoes), many patients will live healthy, active lives with arthritis.

About the author

Lindsay Smith