Osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) are two conditions that are often confused.  While both conditions are classified as arthritis, there are some distinct differences.  OA is also known as degenerative joint disease.  It is characterized by: damage to the joint cartilage and bone, thickening of the bone, and inflammation.  As the cartilage between the bones breaks down, inflammation develops and bony overgrowth occurs.  The effects are most pronounced in weight bearing joints such as knees and hips.  Some of the effects of OA include: muscle loss, pain, stiffness (usually in morning for 30 minutes or less), swelling and inflammation, tenderness to touch, and impaired function such as walking. 

Several factors can contribute to the development of OA.  Some of these include: Obesity - People who have a higher body mass index (BMI) tend to have higher rates of OA.  Genetics or family history – there is abundant evidence to suggest the importance of genetic factors.  Activity level – People who engage in strenuous high intensity activity or have high occupational demands tend to develop OA at higher rates.  Evidence suggests moderate activity does not increase the incidence of OA.  Trauma – patients with previous history of trauma such as meniscal tears or ligamentous instability have higher rates of OA.  X-rays are often used to help with diagnosis of OA.

RA is a progressive, systemic, inflammatory disease of the connective tissue.  RA involves tissue inflammation rather than joint degeneration like OA.  People mostly develop RA in early to middle adulthood, although some develop it later in adulthood.  RA is considered an autoimmune disorder, meaning the body attacks itself.  IgG and IgM antibodies develop and become lodged in synovial membrane (tissue around the joint) causing an inflammatory response.  The synovial membrane thickens and fluid accumulates in the joint space causing an erosion of the joint cartilage and bone.

Some of the symptoms include: joint stiffness lasting longer than 30 minutes on awakening, pain, swelling, and heat.  Patients may also note fatigue, low-grade fever, and mild weight loss.  As the disease progresses, joints can become deformed and osteoporosis (bone weakening) can develop.  Blood work can help with the diagnosis of RA.

Physiotherapists can provide treatment and help with management for both types of conditions.  Adam Bernard is a physiotherapist working at Dynamic Edge Physiotherapy.  If you think you have some of these symptoms, you can book an appointment to see if treatment may be helpful.