Does aching, stiffness, and swelling in and around your joints have you questioning if you suffer from arthritis? You are not alone. According to the CDC, 1 in 4 adults has arthritis—that is more than 54 million U.S. citizens, accounting for 60% of working-age adults. This directly impacts the workforce—8 million workers report limited working abilities due to their arthritis.
Not all arthritis is the same. In fact, “arthritis” is a broad term that describes a number of rheumatic diseases and conditions, including gout, osteoarthritis (OA), and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). The word “rheumatic” refers to inflammation of joints, surrounding tissues, and even organs. OA is the most common form of arthritis. RA may have overlapping symptoms with OA, but it is in fact much different. Let’s compare OA and RA.
What is Osteoarthritis (OA)?
OA is often referred to as a “wear-and-tear” disease. OA is the degeneration (break down) over time of cushiony, protective cartilage that protects the joints; it most often affects the hands, knees, hips, and spine.
Signs and symptoms of OA include:
- Pain during or after activity, especially tenderness at the joint. This pain is generally relieved with rest.
- Stiffness, accompanied by decreased range of motion, is more noticeable after periods of inactivity and upon awakening.
- Asymmetric joint involvement, meaning one knee may be affected, but the other knee may be just fine.
- Grinding sensation in the joints.
- Swelling around the joints.
Factors increasing your risk of developing OA include:
- Advanced age.
- Obese or overweight (increased risk especially in weight-bearing joints).
- History of joint injuries.
- Repetitive stress on the joint.
What is Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)?
RA is an autoimmune disorder, not a wear-and-tear disease. With autoimmune disorders, your body’s natural defense systems turn on your body, mistaking a healthy and good part of your body as something unhealthy and bad. In the case of RA, your body mistakenly thinks the soft lining of your joints is a threat and attacks it, causing chronic inflammation. RA can affect other parts of the body such as the skin, lungs, heart, eyes, and vessels.
Signs and symptoms of RA include:
- Pain and joint inflammation. Joints are usually warm, red, tender, and appear “puffy.”
- Stiffness, particularly in the morning, which is often for a noticeably longer period of time than OA.
- Symmetric joint involvement, meaning both sides of your body are affected symmetrically.
- Commonly affects small distal joints (wrists, fingers); RA may even make them appear knobby or distorted.
- Patients with RA may also have systemic symptoms such as fever, fatigue, weakness, loss of appetite.
Factors that increase your risk of developing RA include:
- Genetics, having a first-degree relative with RA doubles your risk.
- Environmental factors, especially smoking.
Exercise as a Benefit for Both OA and RA
Healthcare providers may recommend different treatments depending on the type and severity of arthritis, including medications, physical therapy, and surgery. In addition, experts agree that daily low-impact exercise can help alleviate symptoms of both OA and RA. Low-impact exercises include walking, swimming, and bicycling. The CDC outlines recommendations for physical activity for people who suffer from arthritis. Consult a healthcare provider before beginning any exercise regimen.
Arthritis Foundation, “What is Arthritis.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Arthritis.”
Hannah Nichols, “What are the Causes and Types of Arthritis?,” Medical News Today, November 14, 2017.
Kori Dewing, Stephen Setter, Barbara Slusher, “Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis 2012: Pathophysiology, Diagnosis, and Treatment,” Clinical Advisor, October 31, 2012.
Mayo Clinic, “Osteoarthritis.”
Mayo Clinic, “Rheumatoid Arthritis.”