Osteoporosis and Osteoarthritis: What’s the Difference?


Osteoporosis and osteoarthritis might sound like two sides of the same coin, but they’re actually very different. The number of differences between the two is much more plentiful than their names suggest.

Ahead, we take a detailed look at the definition, symptoms, and treatment of each so you can better understand the difference between osteoporosis and osteoarthritis.

What is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. It affects about 2.1 million Australians, or 9% of the population. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) reports that 2 in 3 people with osteoarthritis are female, and that 1 in 5 Australians over 45 have it.

Osteoarthritis affects joints and cartilage while osteoporosis affects bones. Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease that causes the thinning or deterioration of the cartilage that sits between our bones.

You might hear several terms from your doctor to describe osteoarthritis, including bone-on-bone contact, bone spurs, calcium deposits, or joint narrowing. They all usually refer to osteoarthritis.

The destruction or thinning of cartilage caused by osteoarthritis leads to pain and stiffness, which can make completing daily activities a chore.

Symptoms of Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis produces different symptoms depending on which part of the body is affected. The most common places for osteoarthritis to appear include fingers, knees, hips, and the big toe.

The net result of these symptoms—however different—is usually pain and stiffness. You may also hear clicking noises or notice a loss of flexibility. Initial symptoms are easy to overlook if you aren’t aware of the problem.

Doctors diagnose osteoarthritis through a physical exam and x-rays, but you can often tell it’s coming when typical activities start causing pain or discomfort.

Osteoarthritis Risks

It can be difficult to tell whether or not you’re at risk for developing osteoarthritis since the risk factors are so broad. Family history can be a risk factor for osteoarthritis; if someone in your family has a problem with osteoarthritis, you may be at risk of developing it later in life.

A lack of physical activity and carrying excess weight can also lead to osteoarthritis over the years, as can the overuse of a particular joint. Actions, like throwing a baseball or playing tennis, can eventually lead to osteoarthritis in the joint.

Osteoarthritis Treatment

There’s no cure for osteoarthritis. Most of the treatment relies on pain management to make day-to-day activities manageable.

Treatment may include heating pads, pain medication, and weight loss. Use of walking sticks and insoles can also help reduce the stress on the affected joint.

You might eventually require a full joint replacement if the problem persists and the pain becomes unbearable.

What is Osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is rarer than osteoarthritis, though it’s still widespread. Osteoporosis Australia estimates that 1.2 million Australians have osteoporosis, and 6.3 million have low bone density.  

Like we stated above, the difference between osteoporosis and osteoarthritis is that osteoporosis targets the bones and osteoarthritis targets joints and cartilage.

The word ‘osteoporosis’ translates to ‘porous bones’. Your bones eventually become weaker and more prone to fracturing through minimal contact.

Symptoms of Osteoporosis

The symptoms of osteoporosis are often difficult to distinguish before the worst happens. This is part of the difference between osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is relatively easy to diagnose when you have pain. Osteoporosis, on the other hand, might not receive a diagnosis until you break a bone.

Simple actions like falling, stepping the wrong way, or carrying something that’s too heavy can trigger a fracture when you have osteoporosis. These breaks are most common in wrists, hips, and the spine – which can be seriously damaging.

To diagnose osteoporosis, doctors use a bone density test. This test determines how the bone mineral density by scanning your spine and hip, and can tell whether or not you’re at greater risk for a fracture.

Osteoporosis Risks

It can be even more difficult to find the risk factors for osteoporosis than it is to find the risk factors for osteoarthritis. Family history plays a role, as do certain medications with side effects that can lower bone density.

Vitamins and minerals play a part; low calcium and low vitamin D can be a risk factor for osteoporosis. Smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and inactivity can also be contributing factors.

Those who have a family history might want to get checked so they can start management and treatment before a fracture happens.

Osteoporosis Treatment

Most of the treatments for osteoporosis revolve around lifestyle changes. A better diet that includes high levels of calcium and vitamin D is a must, as is an increase in physical activity.

There are a few medications that your doctor may prescribe, but lifestyle changes are a significant part of treatment.

Weight training can help improve bone strength and lower the risk of fracture, but follow your doctor’s advice. The goal is to strengthen your muscles and bones so that you’re more resilient while avoiding injury.

Waiting until you’ve already suffered a fracture might be too late, as some fractures in areas like the spine and hip require surgery. Some patients might even need a complete hip replacement.

What If You Have Both?

Having both osteoporosis and osteoarthritis is rare, but it does happen. It can also make treatment difficult since many of the exercises to improve osteoporosis will cause pain.

You will likely have to visit a physical therapist to work around your two conditions here and will need a special dose of medication that helps pain without putting bone density at risk.

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