Osteoarthritis vs. Arthritis: What’s the Difference?

Arthritis is a group of conditions that involve chronic swelling in one or more joints. There are more than 100 types of arthritis, including osteoarthritis (OA), rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and gout. OA is the most common type. It's a condition that affects more than 32.5 million adults in the United States.

OA is also known as degenerative joint disease or wear-and-tear arthritis.

This article explores symptoms of OA, what causes it, and what you can do about it.

Osteoarthritis of the knee

Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

Osteoarthritis Symptoms

OA is most likely to affect the hips, knees, and hands. Symptoms generally start slowly, in just one or two joints, and may include:

  • Joint stiffness
  • Pain when using a joint
  • Limited range of motion
  • Swelling in or around a joint, especially after using that joint
  • Joint instability
  • Bony enlargements, especially in the fingers
  • Scraping or grinding noise when you move the affected joint

With progression, other symptoms can include:

  • More widespread or radiating pain
  • Pain that gets worse at night
  • Frozen joint
  • Trouble doing simple things, such as using the stairs, gripping something, or getting up from a seated position

Osteoarthritis Complications

OA is a serious condition that can lead to:

OA is one of the top causes of disability in older adults. In younger people, OA can have a significant impact on work participation and quality of life.

Causes

OA happens when tissues in the joints start to wear down and the body can't repair it. As it progresses, damage can extend to:

  • Cartilage
  • Tendons and ligaments
  • Synovium, connective tissue that lines the joint
  • Bone
  • Meniscus in the knee

It can be difficult to pinpoint why someone gets OA. It may actually involve a combination of factors. It's certainly possible to have multiple risk factors, such as:

  • Aging
  • Being female
  • Obesity, which puts extra stress on joints
  • Joint abnormalities
  • Muscle weakness
  • Joint injury due to occupation or sports

There are some gene variants associated with OA. But while you may inherit a predisposition to develop it, you don't inherit the condition itself.

Osteoarthritis Is on the Rise

OA is becoming more common due to an increase in factors such as:

  • Obesity
  • Physical inactivity
  • Joint injury

Treatment

There's no cure for OA, but there are treatments and lifestyle adjustments that can help manage pain and help you function better. Some non-pharmaceutical therapies are:

  • Physical therapy and exercise
  • Weight loss, if indicated
  • Splints or braces that help keep joints aligned or keep them from bending

You may also be able to reduce stress on joints by using assistive devices as needed. For example:

  • Cane or walker
  • Electric-powered seat lift
  • Raised toilet seat
  • Grab bars near the toilet and in the tub or shower

Some medication options for OA are:

In some cases, OA doesn't respond or gets worse despite these efforts. When that happens, your provider may recommend surgery. Surgical options may include:

  • Arthroscopy: This is a procedure in which the surgeon makes several small incisions and performs the surgery using a tiny, flexible instrument. This surgery can remove bone spurs and loose fragments from the joint.
  • Osteotomy: This procedure is used to realign bones and take pressure off the joint.
  • Joint fusion: This is a procedure in which the surgeon uses pins, plates, screws, or rods to fasten bones together, which prevents the joint from flexing. This is typically done on the spine, hand, or foot.
  • Joint replacement: In a joint replacement procedure, the surgeon removes parts of bone and creates an artificial joint made out of plastic or metal.

Prevention

OA doesn't happen overnight. It takes 10 to 15 years to develop. Strategies to prevent it or stop it from progressing include:

  • Weight loss, if weight is a factor, otherwise maintain weight
  • Behavioral changes aimed at preventing joint injury, such as wearing protective gear, stretching before strenuous activities, and working on proper technique
  • Regular physical activity, including aerobic and strength training

It's also a good idea to see a healthcare provider when you injure a joint.

Other Types of Arthritis

OA is the most common type of arthritis. Others are:

Summary

Arthritis is a group of conditions that involve joint inflammation. OA is the most common type, characterized by the wearing away of cartilage. Pain and swelling in the joint can make it hard to move freely. Although you can get arthritis at any age, it's one of the top causes of disability in older adults.

There are several treatments that can help relieve pain and inflammation, and improve function. If those aren't effective, there are also several surgical options. Regular physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight can help prevent further joint damage.

A Word From Verywell

OA symptoms can come on suddenly or develop slowly. If you think you have early symptoms of arthritis, it's worth seeing a provider to check it out. You can start with a primary care physician, who may refer you to an orthopedist or rheumatologist, if necessary.

Getting the right diagnosis is the first step toward managing OA and maintaining a good quality of life.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes osteoarthritis to flare up?

    Common triggers include overdoing an activity, repetitive motions, and trauma to the joint, though it can be hard to tell a flare-up from general disease progression. If you have frequent flare-ups, talk to your provider about likely causes.

  • Which type of arthritis is the worst?

    RA is serious and can become quite disabling. OA can also be disabling. However, everyone experiences arthritis differently. No matter the type, symptoms can range from mild to debilitating.

  • Can you stop osteoarthritis from progressing?

    Sometimes. A healthy lifestyle, including a balanced diet and regular physical activity, can help slow disease progression. It's also important to seek treatment when you injure a joint.

15 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Ann Pietrangelo
Ann Pietrangelo is a freelance writer, health reporter, and author of two books about her personal health experiences.