Many people hear the word "arthritis" and automatically think of osteoarthritis (OA), so it can be difficult for them to understand why simple fixes are not helpful for people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). There are three key differences between OA and RA.
RA Is Autoimmune
The major difference between OA and RA or other types of inflammatory arthritis is that they are immune system mediated. This means joint damage is caused by the immune system erroneously believing the joints are a foreign substance, leading it to attempt to destroy the joint, much like it would with viruses or bacteria. OA is the "wear and tear" form of arthritis, which most people will experience at some point in their life. Age, previous injuries, and excess weight are all risk factors for the development of OA. Your immune system has no impact on the development of OA.
Each Has A Different Presentation
OA traditionally affects a single joint at a time, but some people may eventually develop OA in multiple joints. Usually, a single joint affected by OA will start with minor pain that escalates over several years. Other differences can include whether activity or rest make the problem better. People with OA may find that regular activity helps improve pain. Stiffness from OA may also occur throughout the day or after periods of activity. Although RA may start in a single joint, it eventually affects multiple joints in a symmetrical pattern. If one hand is affected, the other hand is usually affected. Some people with RA find their symptoms are obvious because of an abrupt and widespread onset. Morning stiffness and "gelling" after periods of inactivity are also hallmarks of RA. Some degree of activity can improve stiffness, but people with RA may find it is easy to overdo it and make the pain worse.
Pain Control Is Not Disease Control
Many different types of pain medication can be helpful for both OA and RA, especially medications that reduce inflammation. Treatment for OA often involves taking NSAIDs as needed, and in extreme cases, the joint may need to be replaced. Since the pain can be masked in RA, people may believe they do not need to follow their rheumatologist's recommendations about trying disease-modifying anti-rheumatics or biologics. Even if pain medication improves your physical functioning, with RA, you are still experiencing damage that will eventually culminate into physical limitations. Joint deformities are another issue commonly seen in RA, but rarely seen in OA.
Knowing the difference between OA and RA is important as a patient to better treat your condition. The more informed you are as a patient, it is easier to make informed decisions and be proactive about your body. Get in touch with a rheumatologist like those at the Sarasota Arthritis Center today to learn more.