Of the over 100 types of arthritis, osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) are the most common, with OA at 21 million Americans affected, and 1.3 million with RA. RA is an autoimmune disease in which a person’s immune system incorrectly attacks and damages healthy joint tissue. Osteoarthritis pain is caused by loss of some of the healthy cushion around joints and between bones, usually over time.
Do You Have These Symptoms?
- Joint pain – often in the hands, knees, hips or spine
- Restricted range of motion in affected joints
- Stiffness in joints
- Bumps or swelling around your finger joints
- Symptoms that are worse in the morning or with weather changes
These symptoms are shared by both OA and RA but there are important differences. Let’s talk first about OA, which most often affects joints in your hands, knees, hips, and spine. Although it does tend to run in families, maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding repetitive joint stress and injuries are all ways to improve your odds of steering clear of osteoarthritis.
As OA is a wear and tear disease it makes sense that aging is a big factor, but so is being female. More women than men have OA– could women’s achy joints be related to menopause, not arthritis? I have seen this in my work as a women’s health Nurse Practitioner. Many midlife women think their aching joints and stiffness must be signs of arthritis and that they’ll just have to deal with it. But, maybe not. Aching joints can be caused by loss of estrogen which affects the amount of protective collagen in our joints. Many women report relief after 3 months of estrogen therapy.
Osteoarthritis can flare and subside, stay a minor annoyance, or become very debilitating. The goal is to stay as strong and flexible as possible. Exercise, stretch, and keep moving on good days and when needed use a heating pad, and OTC remedies. Glucosamine and Chondroitin supplements have been shown to improve joint health in some studies.
Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms
- Pain and swelling in multiple joints on both sides of the body
- Fast pain onset, often worsening within a few weeks
- Fatigue and weakness
- Joint deformity
- Weight loss
RA is a systemic disease that affects the entire body. The inflammation caused by our immune system’s reaction to being attacked can not only affect joints but also the lungs, heart, blood vessels, and eyes. RA can be tricky to diagnose and there are several blood tests that along with bone scans and imaging can help your health care provider come to a conclusion.
The causes of RA are not clear, but there are environmental and genetic risk factors, which include smoking and being overweight. Just as with OA, hormonal factors are likely to contribute too as around 75 percent of people who have RA are women. Women also tend to develop RA at a younger age than men, with symptoms appearing between the ages of 30 and 50.
As there is no cure for RA, treating symptoms is the goal and is most effective when treatment starts early in the disease’s progression. A class of drugs known as disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) can slow the damage to joints and other tissues. These, along with NSAIDs, steroids, and warm and cold packs are used to control the pain from inflammation. Exercise, quitting smoking, a healthy weight and diet all can aid in getting to remission. Having a chronic illness is extremely stressful, and you may want to explore Tai Chi, Qigong, Yoga, or some other meditative practice as well.
What you can do
If you’re not sure why your joints are swollen, painful and you’re having difficulty moving freely, do talk to your health care provider about what might be causing your symptoms and what you can do to feel better.