Arthritis is a condition in which one or more of your joints are inflamed. This can result in stiffness, soreness, and in many cases, swelling.

Inflammatory and noninflammatory arthritis are the two most common forms of the condition.

There are dozens of different arthritis types. One of the most common types of inflammatory arthritis is rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and the most common type of noninflammatory arthritis is known as osteoarthritis (OA).

OA and RA both have very different causes.

Causes of osteoarthritis

Even though it’s called noninflammatory arthritis, OA can still result in some inflammation of the joints. The difference is that this inflammation probably results from wear and tear.

OA happens when a joint’s cartilage breaks down. Cartilage is the slick tissue that covers and cushions the ends of the bones in a joint.

Injuring a joint can accelerate the progression of OA, but even everyday activities can contribute to OA later in life. Being overweight and putting extra strain on the joints can also cause OA.

Noninflammatory arthritis is most commonly found in the knees, hips, spine, and hands.

Causes of rheumatoid arthritis

RA is a much more complicated disease, but it usually affects the:

  • hands
  • wrists
  • elbows
  • knees
  • ankles
  • feet

Like psoriasis or lupus, RA is an autoimmune disease. This means the body’s immune system attacks healthy tissue.

The cause of RA still remains a mystery. Because women are more likely to develop RA than men are, researchers believe that it may involve genetic or hormonal factors.

RA can also appear in children, and it can affect other body parts, like the eyes and lungs.

The symptoms of RA and OA are similar, in that they both involve stiffness, pain, and swelling in the joints.

But the stiffness associated with RA tends to last longer than it does during flare-ups of OA, and is generally worse first thing in the morning.

The discomfort associated with OA is usually concentrated in the affected joints. RA is a systemic disease, so its symptoms can also include weakness and fatigue.

After your doctor performs a physical examination of the joints, they may order screening tests.

An MRI can reveal the state of soft tissues in a joint, such as cartilage. Standard X-rays can also show cartilage breakdown, bone damage, or erosions.

Your doctor may order a blood test to determine if the joint problem is due to RA. This is to look for the presence of “rheumatoid factor” or cyclic citrullinated antibodies that are usually found in people with RA.

Arthritis is treated differently depending on the type:

Osteoarthritis

Your doctor may recommend nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen for minor flare-ups or mild cases of arthritis.

Corticosteroids, which can be taken orally or by injection, can reduce inflammation in the joints.

Physical therapy can help improve muscle strength and your range of motion. Stronger muscles can better support a joint, possibly easing pain during movement.

When damage to the joint is severe, your doctor might recommend surgery to repair or replace the joint. This is typically done only after other treatments fail to give you enough pain relief and mobility.

Rheumatoid arthritis

NSAIDs and corticosteroids might be used to help reduce pain and swelling for people with RA, but there are also specific drugs designed to treat this type of arthritis.

Some of these include:

  • Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs): DMARDs block your body’s immune system response, which helps slow down the progression of RA.
  • Biologics: These drugs respond to the immune system’s response that causes inflammation instead of blocking the whole immune system.
  • Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitors: This is a new type of DMARD that blocks certain immune system responses to prevent inflammation and joint damage.

New drugs continue to be tested to help treat RA and reduce symptom intensity. And like OA, RA symptoms can sometimes be relieved through physical therapy.

Living with OA or RA can be a challenge. Regular exercise and weight loss can help reduce the burden on your joints. Exercise not only contributes to weight loss, but it also can help support the joints by strengthening the muscles around them.

Assistive devices, like canes, raised toilet seats, or equipment to help you drive a car and open jar lids, are available to help you maintain independence and daily function.

Eating a healthy diet that includes lots of fruits, vegetables, low-fat proteins, and whole grains can also help ease inflammation and prevent weight gain.

Even though there’s no cure for OA or RA, both conditions are treatable. As with most health challenges, getting an early diagnosis and a head start on treatment often results in the best outcomes.

Don’t just chalk joint stiffness up to another unavoidable sign of aging. If there’s swelling, pain, or stiffness, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with your doctor, especially if these symptoms interfere with your daily activities.

Aggressive treatment and a better understanding of your specific condition may help keep you more active and more comfortable in the years ahead.