Arthritis refers to problems with the joints and encompasses more than 100 different diseases that affect about 50 million Americans. Here, we break down the similarities and differences between two of the most common forms — osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) — as well as offer tips for prevention.
1. What’s the difference between osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA)? When you hear “arthritis,” you’re probably thinking of osteoarthritis (OA), which develops over time due to wear and tear on the body’s joints. “We suffer more from osteoarthritis as we get older,” says Peter Bonafede, M.D., a Providence rheumatologist. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic, autoimmune disease that causes inflammation in and around the joints, damaging them over time. RA affects more than twice as many women than men and typically occurs between ages 30 to 60.
2. Do the symptoms of OA and RA feel the same? RA commonly affects joints in the hands, wrists, feet, ankles, knees, shoulders and elbows, while OA frequently affects the hands in addition to weight-bearing joints, such as the knees, hip and spine. People with either disease will complain of pain. “Patients with rheumatoid arthritis experience stiffness, particularly in the morning. With time and activity, they feel better,” says Dr. Bonafede. “Osteoarthritis symptoms are often aggravated by activity.”
3. When should I see a doctor? Consult your doctor about arthritis if joint pain persists for more than a couple weeks (and is not the obvious result of an injury). Patients with OA can receive symptomatic treatment from a rheumatologist or, in some cases, a primary care physician. It’s important for patients with inflammatory arthritis — RA is the most common type — to receive diagnosis and treatment from a rheumatologist as soon as possible. “The earlier the intervention, the better the outcome. We need to treat those folks aggressively and get on top of inflammation,” says Dr. Bonafede. “We can get rid of pain and prevent people from becoming disabled in the long term.”
4. How can I prevent OA? For starters, maintain a healthy BMI. Obesity is a big risk factor for knee pain, says Dr. Bonafede. Also, avoid joint injuries. Exercise to improve muscle strength and prevent joints from getting stiff. If you play sports, don’t forget to warm up. He emphasizes the importance for athletes, especially girls who play soccer and are prone to tearing their ACL and cartilage, to develop proper training techniques for injury prevention.
5. If I have OA, can I exercise? Yes! “You shouldn’t stop doing everything and sit on your couch,” says Dr. Bonafede. He recommends low-impact exercises, such as swimming, cycling and yoga. If you are overweight, try losing weight to reduce stress on weight-bearing joints, like knees. Remember to avoid activities that require running and jumping. Walking is always a safe bet. If walking is difficult, check out the Arthritis Foundation’s “Walk With Ease” program.