Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common form of arthritis. It is a condition affecting the joints, in particular the hip, knee, spine and hands. It is estimated 1.8 million Australians are affected by OA. OA is the leading cause of hip and knee replacement surgery in Australia.

A joint is where two bones meet. Smooth cartilage covers the ends of the bones and lines the joint. The joint is enclosed in a tough capsule containing synovial fluid. This fluid lubricates the cartilage and keeps the joint moving smoothly.

OA is characterised by a breakdown or loss of this smooth cartilage tissue. The cartilage loses its elasticity and becomes rough and may split. Bony spurs may grow (osteophytes). Soft tissues around the joint may become inflamed and ligaments and tendons may deteriorate.

Symptoms of OA include pain, stiffness, swelling and crepitus (a crunching or grating sound). Increasing pain over time results in a person avoiding painful activities such as walking or climbing stairs. Reduced use of the joint causes muscles to weaken and a further load is placed onto the cartilage and soft tissue.

Risk factors for OA

  • Overweight or obesity
  • Ageing – more likely to develop over the age of 45
  • Previous joint trauma
  • Being female
  • Family history

How can physiotherapy help?
There is no cure for OA but physiotherapy management aims to alleviate pain, improve range of movement and flexibility of joints, and increase the strength of the surrounding muscles. A graded exercise program allows muscle strength to improve without aggravating joint pain.

Hydrotherapy may also be a suitable way of exercising for those who find land based exercises painful.