When things are going well and our body feels strong and healthy, musculoskeletal health is an aspect of our well-being we probably don’t think about much. But when new discomfort pops up, it’s important to pay attention and investigate if it’s a larger issue. This is especially true for women, as when it comes to some joint and bone issues like osteoporosis and most types of arthritis, women are particularly at risk.
That’s why we’re here to empower you with information about these conditions, including their symptoms, risk factors, and different treatment options, from medical interventions to lifestyle tweaks. After reading, you’ll better understand how to keep your bones and joints as healthy as possible, plus how to find relief when things flare up and support your loved ones when they’re in pain.
Differences Between Arthritis and Osteoporosis
Arthritis and osteoporosis are related, but distinct, musculoskeletal conditions. Arthritis refers to a group of disorders that cause inflammation and pain in the joints. It involves the breakdown of joint cartilage and may affect various joints throughout the body. Common types of arthritis include rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and psoriatic arthritis.
On the other hand, osteoporosis is a condition characterized by decreased bone density and structural deterioration, leading to an increased risk of fractures. It primarily affects bone strength and quality, making bones more susceptible to fractures, even from minor trauma. It’s possible to have both arthritis and osteoporosis at the same time.
Both conditions are common. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 24% of U.S. adults, or 58.5 million people, have arthritis. Osteoporosis is most common in older adults; data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey in 2017-2018 showed that 12.6% of adults aged 50 or over had osteoporosis, and 43.1% had low bone mass, a precursor of osteoporosis.
Symptoms of Arthritis
Arthritis symptoms are usually more noticeable than osteoporosis symptoms. And while there are more than 100 specific types of arthritis, many of them share general symptoms. Some of these symptoms include these effects on the joints:
- Decreased range of motion
Two of the main types of arthritis are osteoarthritis (not to be confused with osteoporosis) and rheumatoid arthritis. They each damage the joints in different ways.
Osteoarthritis develops when there is consistent damage to cartilage, the hard coating on the ends of bones where they form a joint. Functioning cartilage allows for painless movement of your joints, cushioning the ends of the bones, and when it’s damaged it can lead to the painful experience of bone grinding directly on bone. This damage can happen over years, or quickly through a joint injury or infection. With osteoarthritis, the underlying bone begins to change, and it occurs most commonly in the hands, hips, or knees.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, where your immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells in the body. This results in inflammation in the affected areas of the body–usually joints, and often many joints at once, such as hands, wrists, and knees. This causes damage to the joint tissue which can lead to chronic pain, lack of balance, and misshapenness.
Pregnant women in particular often complain of pain in the small joints of their hands. In one study, all pregnant women who were experiencing arthritic finger joints saw the issue resolved immediately after delivery. While the symptoms looked similar to rheumatoid arthritis, researchers concluded it could be a different disease entity.
Symptoms of Osteoporosis
Osteoporosis is a condition that causes bones to become weak. It happens when the creation of new bone tissue doesn’t keep up with the loss of old bone. Osteoporosis puts you at greater risk for a fracture, even from minor triggers like coughing or bending over.
It’s considered more invisible than arthritis in the early stages, as you may not know you have low bone mass or density until something triggers a fracture. But in addition to a bone that breaks much more easily than expected, here are some of the other symptoms someone with osteoporosis might experience:
- Back pain, caused by a fractured or collapsed vertebra
- Loss of height
- A stooped or hunched posture
There are many risk factors for arthritis and osteoporosis that overlap, along with some distinct ones for each. While there are some lifestyle choices that can contribute to your risk of developing one of these conditions, many of the factors are out of your control. Of note, women are at greater risk for developing osteoporosis and most types of arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.
Risk Factors for Arthritis
The following factors can increase your chances of developing arthritis:
- Sex. Women are more likely to develop most types of arthritis than men, with gout being the exception.
- Age. Your risk of developing most types of arthritis increases as you get older.
- Family history. Some types of arthritis run in families, so you could be at greater risk if your parents or siblings have it.
- Previous joint injury. Injuring a joint puts you at higher risk of eventually developing arthritis in that joint.
- Obesity. Obese individuals are more likely to develop arthritis, as their body weight puts more stress on their joints, especially knees, hips, and spine.
- Infection. A swollen, warm, or red joint could indicate an infection from bacteria or viruses, which puts you at greater risk of developing arthritis.
- Occupation. People working in jobs that require repetitive knee bending and squatting are more likely to develop osteoarthritis of the knee.
- Smoking. Smoking cigarettes puts you at greater risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis and can also worsen the condition.
Risk Factors for Osteoporosis
The following factors can increase your chances of developing osteoporosis:
- Sex. Women are more likely to develop osteoporosis than men. About 80% of the Americans with osteoporosis are women.
- Age. Older adults are at a higher risk of developing osteoporosis, as bone loss happens naturally as we age.
- Race. White and Asian individuals are more likely to develop osteoporosis.
- Family history. Having a parent or sibling who had or has osteoporosis puts you at greater risk, especially if one of your parents fractured a hip.
- Body frame size. People with smaller body frames are at higher risk for osteoporosis as they have less bone mass to draw from.
- Hormone levels. Having too much or too little of certain hormones can be a risk factor for osteoporosis. Some of these include the fall in estrogen levels that happens to women during menopause or during treatments for breast cancer, reduced testosterone levels men experience during treatments for prostate cancer, and high levels of thyroid hormone.
- Dietary factors. You’re more likely to develop osteoporosis if you have a lifelong low calcium intake, as this is related to diminished bone density and early bone loss. An eating disorder or being underweight also puts you at greater risk.
- Steroids and other medications. Certain medications can interfere with the bone rebuilding process and put you at greater risk for osteoporosis. These include corticosteroid medications, such as prednisone and cortisone, used to treat seizures, gastric reflux, and cancer.
- Certain medical conditions. Developing osteoporosis is associated with the following co-occurring medical conditions: celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, kidney or liver disease, cancer, multiple melanoma, and rheumatoid arthritis.
- Lifestyle choices. Some habits can increase your risk of developing osteoporosis, including being more sedentary than active, regularly consuming more than two alcoholic drinks per day, and using tobacco.
Treatment and Finding Relief
If you’ve been diagnosed with arthritis or osteoporosis, there are ways to treat these conditions and make your daily activities more comfortable. Remember to discuss possible side effects with your doctor before starting a treatment plan.
Some treatment options include:
- Medications. There are many different types of medications used to treat arthritis and osteoporosis. One of these is pain medication used to treat severe joint pain, such as NSAIDs like ibuprofen and naproxen sodium. Others include counterirritants in the form of ointments you can rub on your joints, steroids which can reduce inflammation and slow joint damage, and disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs which can slow the progression of rheumatoid arthritis. For osteoporosis, your doctor might recommend a medication that can increase bone density, such as denosumab or a bisphosphonate.
- Hormone-related therapy. Estrogen therapy for women and testosterone replacement therapy for men can help those with osteoporosis maintain bone density.
- Physical therapy. Physical therapy can help with some types of arthritis, enabling you to improve your range of motion and strengthen the muscles surrounding the affected joints.
- Surgery. If other treatment options don’t help, your doctor may suggest surgery, such as a joint repair procedure, replacing your damaged joint with an artificial joint, or a procedure that fuses two small joints together.
You can also increase your comfort level and decrease the chance of further complications by trying the following:
- Exercise. Exercising can help keep joints flexible; swimming is an especially good choice for those with arthritis as it reduces stress on weight-bearing joints.
- Heat and cold. Heating pads and ice packs can help to relieve pain.
- Assistive devices. If daily tasks become difficult, devices like canes, walkers, shoe inserts, and raised toilet seats can make them easier and protect your joints.
- Quit smoking. Quitting smoking will decrease your rate of bone loss, as well as your likelihood of fracturing something.
- Limit alcohol consumption. Limiting your alcohol consumption can also decrease your rate of bone loss.
- Prevent falls. Wearing low-heeled, nonslip shoes and intentionally setting up your home environment can help decrease your chances of falling and fracturing a bone. Check your home for hazards like cords and rugs, and install grab bars inside and out of your shower door.
Gifts for Someone with Arthritis or Osteoporosis
If someone close to you has arthritis or osteoporosis, one way you can support them is through gifting something that will make their life easier.
Some gift ideas include:
- Compression gloves. For those with arthritis in the hands, compression gloves offer some snug support. This allows for more ease while doing daily tasks requiring your hands (which is most of them!)
- Support pillows. A special leg pillow, half-moon pillow, or another type of support pillow can provide a lot of pain relief and reduce joint swelling, plus allow your loved one to get higher quality sleep.
- Shower chair. A chair inside the shower means a lower chance of falling, plus it takes pressure off your loved one’s joints. Sometimes showering can feel like a big, exhausting task for people in pain, and a chair can make it much more manageable.
- Ergonomic products. There are tons of products out there that can create more ease in the daily life of someone with arthritis. These include an arthritis friendly electric can opener, bottle opener, rubber grips, reach extenders, key turning aids, special utensils, and more.
Talk to Your Doctor
If you suspect you might have arthritis or osteoporosis, talk to your doctor. They can confirm a diagnosis and help design a treatment plan. While living with these conditions can be challenging at times, take solace in knowing you’re not alone and there are ways to find relief.