After years of increasing pain and stiffness in your joints, after ordinary tasks like making your bed in the morning had become almost impossible, you finally spoke to your doctor. When you heard that your problem had a name – osteoarthritis, or OA – you weren’t surprised. In fact, you were a bit relieved.

But now you want to know what OA will do to your body, to your lifestyle, and how this disease may affect your future. You want to know what you can do to make yourself feel better, and to keep your OA from getting worse.

What is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis the most common form of arthritis, affecting about 27 million Americans. OA symptoms usually include pain, stiffness and swelling in and around the joints. OA can make daily activities more difficult. Your fingers may feel stiff when you try to grasp a pen. Your lower back may ache as you lean over to open a drawer. Your knees may hurt when you bend down to pick up your morning newspaper.

Where Does Osteoarthritis Strike?

OA affects joints, places where bones come together and move in various directions. OA typically affects the following joints:

  • Neck
  • Spine
  • Hips
  • Hands
  • Knees
  • Ankles

Other joints may be affected as well. Just because you have OA in one particular joint doesn’t mean you’ll develop it in others. But osteoarthritis symptoms may worsen – increasing your pain and decreasing your ability to perform daily tasks – if you don’t address them with treatment and prevention strategies. Luckily, there are many osteoarthritis treatments available to manage pain and stiffness and improve flexibility. You are in charge of your OA prognosis.

What Happens in Osteoarthritis?

OA occurs when parts of a joint, including cartilage, bones, fluid or its membrane lining (synovium), change and break down, usually over years. Cartilage and joint fluid cushion and lubricate a joint, easing the motion of bones. When these joint components break down, movement becomes difficult or painful. In OA, joints can feel stiff. Each movement can be painful. Joints can swell, further hindering movement.

As OA worsens over time, bones may break down and develop growths called spurs. Bits of bone or cartilage may even chip off and float around in the joint cavity. Synovial fluid can diminish in amount or quality.

In the final stages of OA, cushioning cartilage erodes, inflaming the lining of your joint. As a result, chemicals called cytokines (inflammatory proteins) or enzymes are released, causing more pain, swelling and damage.