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. However, there are dozens of different arthritis types. Inflammatory arthritis is usually referred to as rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and 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. In particular, OA results from the breakdown of cartilage. 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:
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. However, because women are more likely to develop RA than men are, researchers theorize that it may involve genetic or hormonal factors. RA can also appear in children, and affect other body parts, such as the eyes and lungs.
The symptoms of RA and OA are similar, in that they both involve stiffness and sometimes pain in the joints. But the stiffness associated with RA tends to last longer than it does during flare-ups of OA, and is worse upon waking up 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 arthritic joint, they may order screening tests. MRI can reveal the state of soft tissues in a joint, such as cartilage. Standard X-rays can also show cartilage breakdown and 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 found in most RA cases.
Arthritis is treated differently depending on the type:
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 and minimize the impact of the immune system on the joints.
Physical therapy can help improve muscle strength and the joint’s range of motion. When damage to the joint is severe, surgical interventions such as joint repair or replacement may be indicated.
The use of NSAIDs and corticosteroids is frequently needed for RA patients to reduce pain and swelling. However, a powerful drug called methotrexate, which is also prescribed for serious cases of psoriasis, is extremely effective at eliminating symptoms and preventing joint damage. It’s taken only once a week when treating RA.
New drugs continue to be tested to help treat RA and reduce symptom intensity. And like OA, RA 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 such as 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.
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. Aggressive treatment and a better understanding of your specific arthritic condition may help keep you more active and more comfortable in the years ahead.