WELLInspired™ Learning Series: Osteoarthritis or Rheumatoid Arthritis, Which is Which?

Have you ever spent most of the day in your yard pulling weeds or cultivating your garden before realizing too many hours had passed and you never once moved from that position? How about spending an entire afternoon packing boxes for donations or an upcoming move without actually moving yourself? And then you wake up the next day with stiff fingers or pain in both ankles or shoulders. If you’ve experienced pain in any of the joints in your body, chances are, you’re suffering from some form of arthritis.

According to the Arthritis Foundation, the word arthritis is not a single disease, rather “an informal way of referring to joint pain or joint disease.” Considering there are more than 100 types of arthritis with varying symptoms, it’s important to determine which version of arthritis may be troubling you.

Two of the most common types of arthritis are Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis. And, one of the questions most often asked when our patients hear the term OA or RA is, “Well…which is which?”

Osteoarthritis (OA)

Osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint disorder that affects asymmetrical joints, or joints that do not parallel each other, is the most common form of arthritis and usually affects older people. The slow onset of OA stems from years of wear and tear on the body’s joints—typically the weight-bearing joints, such as those joints of the hands, hips, knees, big toes and spine. This disorder is attributed to years of overuse, which can do a number of things, including breaking down cartilage, creating a change in bone structure, deteriorating tendons and ligaments, and inflaming the synovium (joint lining). You may notice morning pain that lasts for less than an hour, and symptoms may include joint tenderness or stiffness, especially after a period of inactivity. You may also experience loss of flexibility or swelling in the area, or suffer from bone spurs.

Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)

Rheumatoid Arthritis, on the other hand, is an autoimmune disease that can affect people of any age and typically begins in the smaller joints. However, as the disease progresses, it may subsequently affect the larger joints, such as knees, shoulders and ankles. Since RA is a systemic—or system-wide—disease, most people who suffer from RA experience symptoms on both sides of the body. Numbness and tingling in the hands and feet, red or discolored joints, or joint pain and swelling with stiffness are most commonly experienced. Oftentimes, these symptoms are noticeable first thing in the morning and typically last more than an hour. Still, with RA you may also experience disrupted sleep patterns, a low-grade fever, fatigue, dry eyes and mouth, or depression and mood changes.

Treatment Options

The primary goal of treatment for both OA and RA is to reduce pain, improve function, and minimize damage to joints. While there is no real cure for either form of arthritis, therapeutic modalities, coupled with a good exercise regimen, can help to reduce pain and improve function.

Many people have success with taking anti-inflammatory drugs and corticosteroid medications. For RA, drugs that suppress the immune system can prevent damage by stopping the immune system from attacking the linings of the joint. Still, incorporating anti-inflammatory foods or following a Mediterranean Diet can dramatically increase quality of life. The following list of foods is recommended by the Arthritis Foundation at www.arthritis.org:

  • Fish – Tuna, Salmon, Mackerel and Herring (RA)
  • Soy – Tofu or Edamame (RA)
  • Extra-Virgin Olive Oil (OA and RA)
  • Fruit – Cherries, Strawberries, Raspberries, Blueberries and Blackberries (Gout)
  • Low-Fat Dairy Products – Milk, Yogurt and Cheese, or other calcium and vitamin-D rich foods (OA)
  • Broccoli (OA)
  • Green Tea (OA and ROA)
  • Citrus – Oranges, Grapefruits and Limes (OA and RA)
  • Whole Grains – Oatmeal, Brown Rice and Whole-Grain Cereals (RA)
  • Beans – Red Beans, Kidney Beans and Pinto Beans (RA)
  • Garlic, Onions and Leeks (OA)

As always, we suggest you seek the guidance of a physician for proper diagnosis and treatment.

Content provided by Fleet Landing’s Director of Therapy Lex Gonzales.