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The Differences between Rheumatoid Arthritis and Osteoarthritis

By Sarah Densmore

If you’ve got achy, stiff joints, you’re not alone. More than 46 million Americans suffer from arthritis pain. Arthritis comes in more than 100 forms. Two of the more talked about are rheumatoid and osteoarthritis. While these diseases share certain symptom similarities, they can affect sufferers in dramatically different ways.

Rheumatoid arthritis begins as immune response

Rheumatoid arthritis is a condition in which the lining of the joints (the synovium) become inflamed. This chronic inflammation can lead to debilitating bone loss and joint deformity. The disease occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue as if it were a foreign invader, such as an unknown virus or bacterium.

Often, rheumatoid arthritis will first affect the wrists, hands, ankles, or feet. However, the disease can progress to damage the elbows, hips, jaw, knees, neck, and shoulders. Joints aren’t the only areas affected by rheumatoid arthritis. It can cause inflammation in other parts of the body, including the lungs and eyes.

Some symptoms, like joint pain, tenderness, and stiffness are experienced by sufferers of both rheumatoid and osteoarthritis. Others, including joint swelling (rare in osteoarthritis) and red, puffy hands are characteristic of rheumatoid arthritis.

Because rheumatoid arthritis is a systemic disease, it can cause other symptoms that can affect the entire body, including

  • Fatigue

  • Fever

  • Loss of appetite

  • Weight loss

A person who has rheumatoid arthritis usually doesn’t feel bad all the time. Symptoms of the disease come and go and the severity of symptoms can vary from flare up to flare up.

Scientists don’t know what causes rheumatoid arthritis and, although there are treatments to help manage symptoms, there is no cure. Researchers do know that the disease is more common in smokers, people who are older than 60, and women. They also believe there could be a genetic link because the disease tends to run in families.

Osteoarthritis signals bodily wear and tear

Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis in the United States. It occurs when joint cartilage breaks down due to overuse, misuse, or injury. Cartilage is the stuff that cushions bones at the joint. It’s what makes movement easy and painless.

When normally smooth cartilage is worn down and becomes rough it can cause discomfort and reduce movement. When it’s completely destroyed, bones rub together and movement can become very painful. Osteoarthritis can even damage the bone itself, causing fragments of bone to break off and bone spurs to develop.

Osteoarthritis can affect the hands, hips, knees, lower back, neck, or spine. When it strikes the hands, it can cause hard lumps of bone to form on the finger joints. Unlike the systemic nature of rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis symptoms remain localized to the affected joint(s). They include

  • Grating sensation (when bone is rubbing against bone)

  • Loss of flexibility

  • Pain

  • Stiffness

  • Tenderness

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative condition. Affected joints will only get worse over time as wear and tear continue to take their toll. However, like rheumatoid arthritis patients, many osteoarthritis suffers experience cycles of symptom flare-ups and remissions, so discomfort isn’t constant.

People who are obese, or who have certain other diseases such as diabetes or gout, are more likely to develop osteoarthritis, as are women. Other risk factors include having bone deformities, a history of joint disorders, or working in jobs that continually put a lot of stress on the joints.

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