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A guide to osteoarthritis

Posted: 28/11/2018

What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a condition that affects the joints, causing them to become stiff and painful. In a normal joint, smooth tissue called cartilage covers the bone surfaces and allows bones to move freely against each other. In an osteoarthritic joint, the cartilage erodes, preventing free movement of the joint. The condition is widespread - according to figures published by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), there are approximately 8.5 million people suffering from osteoarthritis in the UK. It is more common in women and significantly affects those in older age groups.


The main symptoms of osteoarthritis are joint pain and stiffness. Other symptoms can include joint swelling and decreased range of motion. The most commonly affected joints are those in the fingers, neck, lower back, knees and hips. For some sufferers, symptoms are mild and felt only after exercise. For others, symptoms can be severe and have a significant impact on daily activities.


There are several risk factors which contribute to the development of osteoarthritis, including:

  • joint injury – overuse of a joint before it has had time to heal after an injury or operation;
  • age – the risk of developing the condition increases with age;
  • genetics – it is thought that the condition may be inherited;
  • obesity – this can put excess strain on the weight bearing joints; and
  • other conditions – osteoarthritis can occur where joints have already been damaged by a pre-existing condition, for example rheumatoid arthritis or gout. This is known as secondary arthritis.

Treating the condition

Though there is no curative treatment for osteoarthritis, it may be possible to reduce and manage the symptoms. NICE guidelines set out treatment recommendations for those who suffer from the condition as follows:  

  • applying heat or cold to the affected joint;
  • use of a TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) machine – this works by sending small electronic pulses to the nerve endings, helping to alleviate pain;
  • use of specialised orthotics/joint supports;
  • anti-inflammatory drugs;
  • corticosteroid injections; and
  • surgical management - where conservative treatments fail to manage symptoms, joint replacement surgery may be offered. This is a procedure whereby the affected joint is replaced by an artificial joint called a prosthesis.

Rosie Nelson, an associate in Penningtons Manches’ clinical negligence team, said: “It is important to raise awareness of this potentially debilitating condition, which affects so many people. For some of our clients, negligent treatment, for example, delayed diagnosis of infection or failed surgeries, has caused an acceleration to their symptoms of osteoarthritis.

“If you, a friend or family member have concerns about the management or treatment of osteoarthritis – or the management of any other orthopaedic related condition, please contact our specialist orthopaedic team.”

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