Last revised by Rohit Sharma on 30 Mar 2024

Osteoarthritis (OA), also known as degenerative joint disease (DJD), is the most common form of arthritis, being widely prevalent with high morbidity and social cost. 

Some authors prefer the term osteoarthrosis instead of osteoarthritis as some authors do not believe in an inflammatory cause as might be suggested by the suffix "itis". The condition is sometimes called non-erosive osteoarthritis, to differentiate it from erosive osteoarthritis, although this is considered a form of osteoarthritis 6

Osteoarthritis is common, affecting ~25% of adults 7. The prevalence increases with age. In the age group below 50 years, men are more often affected, while in the older population the disease is more common in women. It is estimated that over 300 million people in the world suffered from osteoarthritis in 2017 13.

Strong risk factors for developing osteoarthritis include 7,10:

  • obesity

  • increasing age

  • female sex (particularly between the age of 50 and 80)

  • family history

Patients present with decreased function from joint pain, instability, and stiffness 7,10. The pain is typically worsened by activity and decreases at rest; in later disease stages, it may become continuous 12. Many cases of radiological osteoarthritis are asymptomatic and conversely clinically apparent osteoarthritis may not manifest radiographic change 9,10

The pathogenesis and pathophysiology of osteoarthritis are yet to be fully understood 7. Despite emphasis being placed on articular cartilage degeneration, the remainder of the joint is involved including bone remodeling, osteophyte formation, ligamentous laxity, periarticular muscle weakness, and synovitis 8,10.

Osteoarthritis can be 19:

Osteoarthritis can affect both the axial and appendicular skeleton. The most common peripheral joints affected include ref:

Key radiographic features are joint space narrowing, subchondral sclerosis, and osteophytosis. If all three of these findings are not present, another diagnosis should be considered. With the increasing use of MRI in the assessment of osteoarthritis, other findings have been studied, such as bone marrow lesions and synovitis. 

  • joint space narrowing

    • characteristically asymmetric

    • least specific: present in many other pathological processes

  • subchondral sclerosis

    • sclerotic changes occur at joint margins

    • frequently seen unless severe osteoporosis is present

  • osteophytosis

    • i.e. development of osteophytes

    • common degenerative joint disease finding

    • will also be diminished in the setting of osteoporosis

    • some osteophytes carry eponymous names: e.g. Heberden nodes, Bouchard nodes

  • joint erosions

  • subchondral cysts 

  • bone marrow lesions 14,16

    • visible on MRI as bone marrow edema-like lesions, often adjacent to areas of cartilage damage - likely representing early osteoarthritis changes

    • have been shown to correlate with joint pain and progression of cartilage loss 

    • may progress to subchondral cysts

  • synovitis

    • a non-specific finding, present also in other diseases, including inflammatory and infectious conditions 

    • present in up to 50% of patients with osteoarthritis 14

    • according to some authors it may be correlated with pain, disease severity and progression 14,15

Plain radiograph is the most commonly used modality in assessment of osteoarthritis due to its availability and low cost. It can detect bony features of osteoarthritis, such as joint space loss, subchondral cysts and sclerosis, and osteophytes. It is, however, relatively insensitive to early disease changes. Other limitations are a lack of assessment of soft-tissue structures and low intrareader reliability 17.

Scoring systems used to assess the severity of osteoarthritis on radiographs include 17,18:

Ultrasound is not routinely used in osteoarthritis. The assessment of the bony structure and deep joint structures using this modality is impossible. However, it is useful in detecting joint effusion, synovitis, and osteophytes. It can also act as guidance in joint interventions.

CT has excellent accuracy in assessing bony osteoarthritis changes. It is especially useful in the assessment of the facet joints. In order to reliably assess the articular cartilage, an arthro-CT must be performed.

MRI can very accurately assess both bones and soft-tissue joint structures. It can detect bone marrow changes and cartilage loss, both of which are early osteoarthritis changes and are not visible on radiographs. On conventional MR, articular cartilage is best assessed using fluid-sensitive sequences with fat suppression; with the advent of new methods of cartilage quantification and composition assessment - currently used in research - the sensitivity is further increased. Contrast administration enhances the visualization of synovitis.

Several scoring systems using MRI assessment of osteoarthritis of the knee have been proposed 14:

  • Whole-Organ Magnetic Resonance Imaging Score

  • Knee Osteoarthritis Scoring System

  • Boston Leeds Osteoarthritis Knee Score

While not routinely used in clinical practice, nuclear medicine studies can provide information about multiple joints in one examination. The changes in the joints with osteoarthritis show increased radiotracer uptake due to reactive bone turnover. The potential disadvantage of a poor anatomical resolution can be solved by using hybrid imaging 14.

Nuclear medicine examination used in the assessment of osteoarthritis are:

There is no effective treatment to slow or reverse the changes of osteoarthritis 7. The mainstays of treatment include exercise, walking aids, bracing, and analgesia (including intra-articular steroid injections) 8. Arthroplasty can result in improved function and reduced pain 10.

The term "osteoarthritis" was introduced as a synonym for rheumatoid arthritis by the English physician John K Spender (1829-1916) in 1886, however, it was not until 1907 that the English physician Archibald E Garrod (1857-1936) applied the term to the condition that is now considered to be osteoarthritis 19-21

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