When people say they have arthritis, they often mean osteoarthritis. But did you know arthritis comes in many forms? Sometimes, clients tell us they have arthritis, but they’re not sure which type, or what it means for them. So, let’s look at two of the most common forms: osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, and consider the differences between them.
What is arthritis?
The word ‘arthritis’ is an umbrella term for conditions that cause inflammation, pain and damage to joints. But there are many types of arthritis, each having distinct causes and symptoms.
Although we associate it with aging, arthritis can affect people of any age, even children.
Because arthritis causes inflammation in joints, there’s a lot of overlap in symptoms. Pain, stiffness, redness and swelling are typical.
Though similar, osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) have tell-tale differences. In this article, we’ll explain who gets them, what the typical symptoms are, and consider how they can be treated.
Differences between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis
You sometimes hear osteoarthritis (OA) called ‘degenerative joint disease’, and we generally associate it with older people.
While it’s true that the chances of having OA increase with age, it’s not a normal aging process, and it’s not inevitable. Researchers have found it’s linked to overproduction of enzymes that break down cartilage, rather than the cell deterioration that comes with age.
OA causes breakdown of the tissues in weightbearing and heavily used joints. Apart from age, it’s also linked to being female, being overweight, having a family history of OA, previous joint damage, and environmental factors such as occupations that cause joint stress (such as construction, floor laying, farming and care work).
By contrast, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a body-wide auto-immune disease. The immune system mistakenly attacks the lining inside joints, causing inflammation and damage. But it also causes symptoms in other parts of the body.
RA tends to affect multiple joints in a symmetrical pattern. Although the cause of RA is unclear, you’re more likely to get it if you were born female, you have a family history of RA, or if there are environmental factors, such as a viral infection,smoking or stress, that might trigger an excessive response from your immune system.
Is it osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis?
Joint pain, swelling and stiffness are common to all kinds of arthritis. If you think you may have arthritis, it’s important to get a proper diagnosis from a healthcare professional. An osteopath can evaluate your symptoms and advise you.
However, there are some clues that may indicate whether it’s osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis.
This is a typical picture of osteoarthritis:
- You’re aged 45 or over.
- You have aching and stiffness that has developed gradually in one joint, though it may happen in several joints.
- You may have previously injured the painful joints. For example, you may have had a ligament tear or a dislocation.
- The joint is a large, weightbearing joint, such as the hip or knee, or a smaller, well-used joint such as spine, hands or jaw joints.
- The joint is swollen and may have become enlarged and more bony.
- It aches more with activity, and when you move after rest. It may also be painful at night.
- You are not experiencing other symptoms, such as weight loss, fever, fatigue, breathlessness, or palpitations.
If it’s rheumatoid arthritis, it may look like this:
- You’re between 30 and 60 years old.
- You notice tenderness, pain or stiffness in more than one joint – usually matching joints on either side of the body.
- Later, the joints may be swollen and red.
- The pain starts in small joints – typically the hands, wrists or feet.
- The joints feel stiff in the morning, and the stiffness lasts for more than 30 minutes.
- You feel fatigued and unwell, you have a fever, or you notice chest pain, heart palpitations, or breathlessness. You may also have digestive problems and dry eyes and mouth.
- Pain and other symptoms can come and go in ‘flares’.
There are many other types of arthritis. You can find out more about them from the Arthritis Foundation.
Deciding on the right course of action depends on getting a proper diagnosis.
OA can often be diagnosed without the need for special tests, although joint changes (such as narrowing of the joint space and the presence of bony spurs) can show up on X-rays.
RA, however, needs blood tests to look for inflammatory markers.
While there’s no cure for arthritis, there are many ways to help manage it.
If you have rheumatoid arthritis, your doctor will prescribe targeted medication to reduce or stop inflammation and limit damage and long-term complications.
But for both these types of arthritis, there are plenty of steps you can take to help you cope. Here are some ideas to consider:
- Balance activity with rest. Gentle exercise such as walking or swimming can help to keep muscles strong, reduce inflammation and maintain joint mobility. But rest is important too, especially during times of pain and fatigue.
- Use heat and cold. Soothe stiff joints and aching muscles with heat pads or a warm bath. If your joints are red and inflamed, an ice-pack can ease both swelling and pain.
- Eat well and drink plenty. A nutritious diet and plenty of water provide the basis for good health in your joints, as well as helping you maintain an appropriate weight.
- Take supplements. Omega-3 and curcumin supplements support joint health.
- Manage your stress. Carve out time for activities that relieve stress, whether that’s meditation, yoga, a walk in nature, or socialising with friends.
How we can help your arthritis
Here at OCHK, our team understands how arthritis can affect your life. We know the differences between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Our qualified therapists can ease pain, improve mobility, reduce stress and enable you to live life to the full.
Osteopathy works on the whole body to reduce stress on the painful joints, while improving function and mobility throughout. Our osteopaths can also provide advice for self-management.
Yoga therapy improves body alignment, flexibility and breathing, plus it’s an excellent way to manage your stress.
Counselling can help you if you’re struggling with chronic pain by providing a space to express your feelings. Our counsellor is qualified in techniques such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which can empower you by altering the way you think about and respond to your pain.
All our therapists learn how arthritis impacts the body as part of their training. We know every individual has differences in their experience of osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis. Always let us know how your condition is impacting you, and how you feel when you come for treatment, and we will tailor your session accordingly.