Despite years of research, no one has a simple answer for what causes osteoarthritis. Many factors probably cause the initial cartilage damage that sets off the destructive process. It remains a mystery why particular joints are affected by osteoarthritis if they have not suffered any previous injury or disease.
Joint wear and tear
The aging process clearly can contribute to the breakdown in the joints and cause osteoarthritis, but not all elderly people develop osteoarthritis.
Athletes and laborers often subject their joints to prolonged wear-and-tear, which places them at increased risk of developing arthritis in later years.
Joint injury or overuse
Along with continual wear-and-tear, osteoarthritis has been linked with damaging events such as:
- Fractures and infections that can harm the internal tissues of a joint. Individuals who experience repeated knee injuries -- such as basketball, football, or soccer players -- are much more likely to develop osteoarthritis as they get older.
- In addition, people who overuse their joints by subjecting them to repeated stresses and strains are at increased risk. This is particularly evident in specific occupations such as jackhammer operators, who often develop arthritis of the hands or elbows, and ballet dancers, who develop arthritis of the feet.
Not surprisingly, physical inactivity can be as harmful to the joints as overuse. A lack of exercise or varied movement can weaken the muscles that support the joints and decrease joint flexibility. Eventually, an underused joint may become stiff, painful, dysfunctional, and prone to injury and osteoarthritis.
Excess body weight
Heavy individuals are at increased risk of developing arthritis because their joints may be strained by excess weight. This is especially evident in weight-bearing joints such as the knees and hips, which often show the first signs of weight-related strain and injury.
Research indicates that people who are overweight as young adults are likely to develop osteoarthritis of the knee as they age.
Since being overweight can increase the chances of joint damage and worsen arthritic symptoms, most experts recommend weight-loss programs for overweight people who are at risk for osteoarthritis. Weight gain also should be avoided to help prevent the arthritis that may occur with aging.
Current research suggests that the genes inherited from one's parents may make an individual more likely to develop osteoarthritis than someone who does not have these genes. Scientists have discovered an abnormality in a gene responsible for the production of collagen -- a protein component of cartilage. This defect may lead to the premature breakdown of cartilage and predispose such gene carriers to osteoarthritis, but it explains only a very small percentage of osteoarthritis. Studies are in progress to search for other genes.
Osteoarthritis of the fingers occurs very commonly in families and is most common in women.
In addition, osteoarthritis is more likely to develop in people who are born with heredity defects that make their joints fit together incorrectly, such as:
- Bow legs
- A hip dislocation
- Laxity (double-jointedness)
Review Date: 12/24/2012
Reviewed By: Ariel D. Teitel, MD, MBA, Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Rheumatology, NYU Langone Medical Center. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.