The most commonly reported symptoms of osteoarthritis include pain and stiffness in affected joints, as well as limited mobility.
However, there is truly a wide range of osteoarthritis symptoms among patients, and the severity of symptoms does not necessarily correlate with the degree of joint damage. For example, a patient with a significantly degenerated joint may have fewer symptoms than a patient with only mild joint degeneration. For many, the symptoms come and go, often with long periods between flare-ups.
Typical Signs and Symptoms of Osteoarthritis
For many, osteoarthritis pain may become markedly worse over time or with specific activities. Characteristic signs and symptoms of osteoarthritis include:
- Stiffness. A common marker of osteoarthritis is stiffness in the joint that is most pronounced first thing in the morning, or after a prolonged period of inactivity (such as sitting in a car or airplane). The stiffness usually resolves within 30 minutes of light activity, as the joints “warm up” through gentle movement.
- Pain. Another common symptom is pain in the joint that worsens during or after too much movement. The pain may be experienced as dull and aching, or sharp and piercing. In the most severe cases of osteoarthritis, patients may also feel pain when the joints are at rest or only moving slightly.
- Soreness. The joint may feel tender to touch or with slight pressure.
- Inflexibility. Patients may experience loss of full range of motion in the affected joint.
- Swelling. The joint may swell due to excess fluid buildup. This type of swelling is clinically referred to as effusion. If the swelling is severe, the joint may also feel warm to touch.
- Grating or creaking. There might be a sensation of grating or slight grinding when moving the joint, as the surfaces of the articulating points of the joint no longer move smoothly against each other.
- Bone spurs. Sometimes, bone bumps – which are points of the bone that grow outward as a result of the joint friction and dysfunction – can be felt under the skin. Bone spurs may also be referred to as osteophytes.
- Deformity. In some types of osteoarthritis, physical deformity may be noticeable. For example, enlarged finger joints may result from the friction causes bony enlargements of the finger joints, or advanced degeneration of knee cartilage can lead to an outward, or bowlegged, curvature of the knee.
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Is the grating or grinding sensation harmful? See What Is Crepitus?
While osteoarthritis pain is usually felt in the affected joint, for some patients the pain may be referred to other areas of the body. For example, hip osteoarthritis may lead to knee pain, or spinal osteoarthritis may affect nerves that cause pain, numbness or other symptoms in the part of the body that the nerve leads to.
When the hips or knees are affected, walking can be a significant source of pain, and accommodating pain may induce a limp. Pain can be felt in areas outside the damaged joints, including the buttocks, groin, or thigh and may vary in severity from a dull ache to a sharp pain.