Isn’t all joint pain the same—if it hurts, it hurts? The answer is no: although the symptoms of different types of arthritis can be quite similar, there is a significant difference between their causes and treatments. Determining which type of arthritis you have is the key to finding an effective treatment that will help you move freely and return to the things you love.
What Causes Different Types of Arthritis?
Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis and is the result of simple wear-and-tear in your joints. We are able to move our bodies comfortably because of cartilage, a tissue in our joints that helps the surface of our bones glide smoothly over each other. Over time, that smooth cartilage between your bones begins to break down, and your joints can no longer move so comfortably. This wear-and-tear process can be accelerated in people who are overweight, as excess weight creates additional impact on the joints that damages cartilage quicker.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease in which your body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells. This immune response leads to inflammation that damages joint tissues and can lead to deformities as well. People with rheumatoid arthritis often experience symmetrical symptoms; for example, both knees or both elbows becoming inflamed. While the exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis is unclear, many factors can exacerbate your risk. Among these risk factors are age, sex (women are more likely to develop the disease than men), genetic history, and smoking.
How Is Each Type of Arthritis Treated?
No matter what kind of arthritis you have, some treatment and management strategies are universal. Physical therapy can help strengthen muscles around your joints, increase flexibility, and reduce joint pain. Weight loss can also contribute to slowing the deterioration of joint tissue and limiting pain by reducing the impact your joints receive. Low impact exercises such as swimming or biking are great ways to improve physical fitness while avoiding increased pain or inflammation.
Other conservative treatments for arthritis include medication, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and painkillers like acetaminophen. In the case of rheumatoid arthritis, you may also try disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) that seek to prevent permanent damage to your joint tissue.
If these conservative treatment options fail to adequately reduce pain and restore your quality of life, your doctor may recommend surgical treatment. The most common of these surgeries is a total joint replacement, such as a total knee replacement.
What Should I Do If I Think I Have Arthritis?
The best first step if you experience joint pain that gets in the way of your daily activities or impacts your quality of life is to see your primary care physician. Your doctor can recommend early treatments and therapies, and refer you to a specialist such as a rheumatologist if needed. Diagnosing whether you have arthritis—and which type of arthritis it is—is essential to determining the best treatment plan for you.