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Understanding the difference between Arthritis and Osteoarthritis

Jan 16, 2012, 8:35 a.m.

Are you experiencing pain or stiffness in your joints? You may have a form of arthritis, a medical condition characterized by the swelling and inflammation of the joints. The two most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, although arthritis also encompasses other conditions including lupus, fibromyalgia and gout. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated one in every five adults in the United States have doctor-diagnosed arthritis.

Today, the CDC considers arthritis to be a growing public health concern. Although arthritis is commonly thought of as an age-related condition, nearly two-thirds of individuals affected with arthritis are younger than age 65. Arthritis is also the most common cause of disability, with nearly 21 million Americans reporting activity limitations due to arthritis.

Confused about the differences between arthritis and osteoarthritis? Here's a quick primer:

How is osteoarthritis different from arthritis?

Arthritis is a general medical term for any chronic condition that causes damage to the cartilage and joints. With osteoarthritis, joint damage is caused by natural wear and tear over time. With rheumatoid arthritis, the body's own immune system attacks the joints, leading to swelling, pain and the eventual destruction of cartilage at the joint. Unlike "wear and tear" osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis affects the interior lining of the joints.

What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is one of the most common forms of arthritis. Know as 'wear and tear' arthritis, this condition occurs when the protective cartilage covering the ends of the bones wears down over time. While treatments can slow the progression of this chronic condition and relieve pain, there is no cure.

How can I reduce my risk for arthritis?

Like many chronic conditions, the risk for both arthritis and osteoarthritis increase with weight gain. If you are overweight or obese, carrying extra weight places stress on weight bearing joints, such as the knees, and can exacerbate joint pain. Women are at greater risk for developing osteoarthritis, although further research is needed to understand why. Additionally, jobs with repetitive motions may place excess stress on a specific joint, leading to an increased risk for osteoarthritis.

Are the symptoms of arthritis and osteoarthritis different?

General arthritis symptoms include pain, stiffness, soreness and tenderness at the joints. Osteoarthritis symptoms are typically most evident early in the morning when you wake up or after an extended period of inactivity. Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms include firm bumps of tissue under the skin, fever, fatigue and weight loss.

I think I may have a form of arthritis -- what should I do?

If you think you may have a form of arthritis, talk to your physician as soon as possible. Early diagnosis is especially important for inflammatory arthritis conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.

What can I do to better manage my arthritis?

If you've been diagnosed with arthritis, it's natural to be frustrated with the chronic pain. Arthritis symptoms like inflammation, tenderness and swelling can hold you back from living an active life. However, self-management techniques can significantly help improve your quality of life. Low-impact physical activity, such as swimming, increases circulation, which helps reduce pain. Lifestyle and dietary changes can also help.

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