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Osteoarthritis Symptoms and Diagnosis

Osteoarthritis Symptoms and Diagnosis

What are early signs and symptoms of osteoarthritis?

Skelton showing joints affected by osteoarthritisOsteoarthritis (OA) usually progresses slowly over a period of months or years. Early on, osteoarthritis symptoms tend to come and go. Over time, as damage accumulates, symptoms can become more constant, occurring at rest and disturbing sleep. The good news is that symptoms can improve with treatment, even if the disease process itself is unchanged. Symptoms may be experienced in the joint or outside of the joint as well.

Osteoarthritis can affect any joint, but most commonly affects the knees, hips, big toes, hands and spine. Many people are affected by osteoarthritis in more than one joint. Osteoarthritis affects everyone differently, however common symptoms include joint pain, aching, morning stiffness lasting less than 30 minutes, reduced range of movement in the affected joint(s) and possibly swelling. The symptoms may come and go, but the intensity of pain can increase over time since osteoarthritis progresses over time.

Common osteoarthritis joint symptoms include:

Woman with osteoarthritis knee pain

Osteoarthritis symptoms outside the joint may include:

Fatigued person with osteoarthritis

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How is osteoarthritis diagnosed?

Diagnosing osteoarthritis with a x-rayThere is no single test for osteoarthritis. A diagnosis can be made based on your symptoms and a physical examination of your affected joint(s).

For people over the age of 40 who have symptoms typical of osteoarthritis, a diagnosis can be made based on a clinical assessment. X-ray or MRI is not typically part of the diagnostic process, unless it is being used to rule out a potential injury.

However, an x-ray or MRI may be ordered if you have not been responding to your treatment or management plan, or if you and your doctor are planning a surgery where imaging would be helpful. If an x-ray or MRI is ordered, it is important to know that symptoms of osteoarthritis do not always match what is found on imaging. For example, in the early stages of osteoarthritis, an x-ray or MRI may not reflect the symptoms you are experiencing, and later in the disease process, the damage shown on imaging may appear more severe than the pain or other symptoms you feel.

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What are the risk factors for osteoarthritis?

Risk factors that may increase your chances of developing osteoarthritis include the following:

Woman with osteoarthritis

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What is the osteoarthritis patient journey?

Diagnosing osteoarthritis with doctorA patient journey is the sequence of events that a person with osteoarthritis experiences, from the first signs of symptoms to diagnosis and later to treatment and management. Not all steps will be the same for everyone, but it can give you an idea of what you may expect and how to effectively manage your osteoarthritis.


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How common is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, affecting more than four million Canadians (one in seven).

These numbers are expected to increase as the population ages and grows. Osteoarthritis is more common in females than in males, and becomes more common as age increases.

Among people with osteoarthritis who experience joint pain, the most commonly reported painful joint site is the knee, followed by the hand, back, hip, and shoulder. It is common for osteoarthritis to affect multiple joints. As many as four in five Canadians with osteoarthritis report having pain in two or more joint sites, and more than 40 per cent report having pain in four or more joint sites.


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This osteoarthritis resource was reviewed in February 2021 with expert advice from:

Dr. Sarah E. Ward, MD, FRCSC
Orthopaedic Surgeon, Division of Orthopaedic Surgery
St. Michael’s Hospital
Assistant Professor, Department of Surgery
University of Toronto

Members of the Canadian Arthritis Patient Alliance Steering Committee, including:

  • Linda Wilhelm
  • Janet Gunderson
  • Therese Lane
  • Louise Crane

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This resource was made possible through unrestricted educational grants from:

Arthritis alliance of Canada
IA Financial Group