Osteoarthritis refers to a clinical syndrome of joint pain accompanied by varying degrees of functional limitation and reduced quality of life. It is the most common form of arthritis, and one of the leading causes of pain and disability worldwide. The most commonly affected peripheral joints are the knees, hips and small hand joints. Pain, reduced function and effects on a person's ability to carry out their day-to-day activities can be important consequences of osteoarthritis. Pain in itself is also a complex biopsychosocial issue, related in part to a person's expectations and self-efficacy (that is, their belief in their ability to complete tasks and reach goals), and is associated with changes in mood, sleep and coping abilities. There is often a poor link between changes visible on an X-ray and symptoms of osteoarthritis: minimal changes can be associated with a lot of pain, or modest structural changes to joints can occur with minimal accompanying symptoms. Contrary to popular belief, osteoarthritis is not caused by ageing and does not necessarily deteriorate. There are a number of management and treatment options (both pharmacological and non-pharmacological), which this guideline addresses and which represent effective interventions for controlling symptoms and improving function.

Osteoarthritis is characterised pathologically by localised loss of cartilage, remodelling of adjacent bone and associated inflammation. A variety of traumas may trigger the need for a joint to repair itself. Osteoarthritis includes a slow but efficient repair process that often compensates for the initial trauma, resulting in a structurally altered but symptom-free joint. In some people, because of either overwhelming trauma or compromised repair, the process cannot compensate, resulting in eventual presentation with symptomatic osteoarthritis; this might be thought of as 'joint failure'. This in part explains the extreme variability in clinical presentation and outcome that can be observed between people, and also at different joints in the same person.

There are limitations to the published evidence on treating osteoarthritis. Most studies have focused on knee osteoarthritis, and are often of short duration using single therapies. Although most trials have looked at single joint involvement, in reality many people have pain in more than one joint, which may alter the effectiveness of interventions.

Guideline update 2014

This guideline update was originally intended to include recommendations based on a review of new evidence about the use of paracetamol, etoricoxib and fixed-dose combinations of NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) plus gastroprotective agents in the management of osteoarthritis. Draft recommendations based on the evidence reviews for these areas were presented in the consultation version of the guideline. Stakeholder feedback at consultation indicated that the draft recommendations, particularly in relation to paracetamol, would be of limited clinical application without a full review of evidence on the pharmacological management of osteoarthritis. NICE was also aware of an ongoing review by the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency) of the safety of over-the-counter analgesics. Therefore NICE intends to commission a full review of evidence on the pharmacological management of osteoarthritis, which will start once the MHRA's review is completed, to inform a further guideline update.

Until that update is published, the original recommendations (from 2008) on the pharmacological management of osteoarthritis remain current advice. However, the Guideline Development Group (GDG) would like to draw attention to the findings of the evidence review on the effectiveness of paracetamol that was presented in the consultation version of the guideline. That review identified reduced effectiveness of paracetamol in the management of osteoarthritis compared with what was previously thought. The GDG believes that this information should be taken into account in routine prescribing practice until the planned full review of evidence on the pharmacological management of osteoarthritis is published (see the NICE website for further details).

The current update addresses issues around decision-making and referral thresholds for surgery, and includes new recommendations about diagnosis and follow-up. The update also contains recommendations based on new evidence about the use of nutraceuticals, hyaluronans and acupuncture in the management of osteoarthritis.

Drug recommendations

The guideline will assume that prescribers will use a drug's summary of product characteristics to inform decisions made with individual patients.

  • National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE)