Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common form of arthritis, affecting around 500 million people worldwide, or around 7% of the global population. In the United States, over 32 million have OA.

The above statistics come from a report by The Lancet, which also notes that OA is more common among older adults and is the leading cause of disability in this group. The condition is also disproportionately common among females. Other risk factors include injury, obesity, and genetics.

This article discusses the prevalence of OA in the U.S. and worldwide, which groups OA affects most, and the causes. It also explores the effects of OA and ways to help prevent the condition.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 32.5 million adults in the U.S. live with OA. Globally, OA affects more than 500 million people, which is around 7% of the world’s population.

OA can affect anyone, but the condition is most common in adults over 40 years. OA is also more common in females than in males, particularly those over the age of 50.

For females, the condition often develops after menopause, suggesting that physiological changes in females account for some of the elevated risk. However, it is also possible that social factors, such as gender roles or disparities in healthcare, may also play a role.

Individuals with obesity are also more likely to develop OA. This is partly due to the extra stress on weight-bearing joints such as the hips and knees. Obesity can also cause people to be more likely to experience metabolic changes that can increase the risk of developing OA.

People in certain occupations may also be more likely to develop OA due to wear and tear. A 2020 review lists agricultural work, cleaning, construction, and carpentry as some of the specific occupations that may contribute to OA.

OA develops when the cartilage covering the end of the bones in a joint begins to wear away. This means that the bones in the joint start rubbing against a rough surface instead of smooth cartilage.

This often happens due to the repeated use of a joint and changes in the tissues in the joint that occur over time. This is why OA is more common in older adults.

Other factors that can contribute to this include:

  • injury
  • obesity
  • family history of OA
  • certain joint irregularities

OA is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide. This affects both the individual and their surrounding community, influencing relationships, finances, productivity, the economy, and quality of life on a national scale.

The CDC’s National Public Health Agenda for Osteoarthritis states between 2008–2014, adults with OA earned 4,274 dollars less than people without the condition.

The total amount of work earnings lost due to OA in the U.S. was $71.3 billion per year, and the medical costs for individuals in the U.S. living with OA from 2008–2014 were $65.5 billion.

OA also significantly affects other aspects of health, compounding its effect on well-being. It can contribute to mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, and make it more challenging to maintain a moderate weight. This, in turn, increases the risk of other health conditions, increasing the need for healthcare.

Individuals, healthcare professionals, and public health organizations can use several strategies to reduce the prevalence of OA, such as:

Preventing injuries

It is not always possible to prevent joint injuries, but there are precautions people can take to reduce the risks as much as possible, such as:

  • using protective equipment when playing sports
  • following safety procedures at work
  • doing strength and balance training, particularly in later life, to prevent falls

Protecting joints from overuse

High impact sports, such as running, put more pressure on joints than low impact sports. This may increase the risk of OA if a person engages in this type of activity frequently.

It may help to mix high and low intensity exercise or to modify sports so that they have less impact on joints. For example, people can avoid running on hard surfaces such as concrete.

Similarly, people in physically demanding jobs may be able to use equipment or workplace modifications to reduce the strain of repetitive movements.

Weight management

There is currently no research that proves that reducing obesity will reduce rates of OA. However, as it is an important risk factor, it follows that maintaining a moderate weight may reduce a person’s risk of developing the condition.

People can maintain a moderate weight by:

The prevalence of osteoarthritis (OA) is 7% worldwide. The condition affects over 500 million people globally and is one of the leading causes of disability.

Public health organizations such as the CDC are keen to prevent OA due to its significant effects on well-being and the economy.

Current strategies focus on addressing the risk factors for the disease that are within a person’s control, such as helping to prevent injuries, promoting weight management, and reducing joint overuse.