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Osteoporosis and Osteoarthritis - Very Different Conditions

How Are the Two Conditions Similar and Different?

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Updated June 23, 2014

What Is Osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is a major health threat for 44 million Americans, 68% of whom are women. In osteoporosis, there is a loss of bone tissue that leaves bones less dense and prone to fracture. It can result in a loss of height, severe back pain and deformity. Osteoporosis can impair a person’s ability to walk and can cause prolonged or permanent disability.

Osteoporosis is a silent disease that can often be prevented. However, if undetected, it can progress for many years without symptoms until a fracture occurs. Osteoporosis is diagnosed by a bone mineral density (BMD) test, a safe and painless way to detect low bone density.

Risk factors for developing osteoporosis include:

  • thinness or small frame
  • family history of osteoporosis
  • being postmenopausal or having had early menopause
  • abnormal absence of menstrual periods
  • prolonged use of certain drugs, such as prednisone
  • low calcium intake
  • physical inactivity
  • smoking
  • excessive alcohol intake
  • Osteoporosis Screening Quiz

Although there is no cure, several drugs and medication options are approved for the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis. In addition, a diet rich in calcium and vitamin D, regular weight-bearing exercise, and a healthy lifestyle can prevent or lessen the effects of the disease.

What Is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a painful, degenerative joint disease that often involves the hips, knees, neck, lower back, or the small joints of the hands. Osteoarthritis usually develops in joints that are injured by repeated overuse in the performance of a particular job or a favorite sport or from carrying around excess body weight. Eventually this injury or repeated impact thins or wears away the cartilage that cushions the ends of the bones in the joint so that the bones rub together, causing a grating sensation. Joint flexibility is reduced, bony spurs develop, and the joint swells. Usually, the first symptom a person has with osteoarthritis is pain that worsens following exercise or immobility.

Similar Names, Very Different Conditions

While osteoporosis and osteoarthritis are two very different medical conditions with little in common, the similarity of their names causes great confusion. These conditions:

  • develop differently
  • have different symptoms
  • are diagnosed and treated differently

While it is possible to have both osteoporosis and arthritis:

  • studies show that people with osteoarthritis are less likely to develop osteoporosis.
  • people with rheumatoid arthritis may be more likely to develop osteoporosis, especially as a secondary condition from drugs used in treatment.
  • The Rheumatoid Arthritis-Osteoporosis Link

Exercise

Osteoporosis and arthritis do share many coping strategies. With either or both conditions, people benefit from arthritis-friendly exercise programs that may include physical therapy and rehabilitation. In general, exercises that emphasize stretching, strengthening, posture, and range of motion are appropriate, such as:

People with osteoporosis must take care to avoid activities that include bending forward from the waist, twisting the spine, or lifting heavy weights. People with arthritis must compensate for limited movement in arthritic joints. Always check with your physician to determine if a certain exercise or exercise program is safe for your specific medical situation.

Pain Relief

Everyone with arthritis will use pain relief strategies at some time. This is not always true for people with osteoporosis. Usually, people with osteoporosis need pain relief when they are recovering from a fracture. In cases of severe osteoporosis with multiple spine fractures, pain control also may become part of daily life.

Regardless of the cause, pain relief strategies are similar for people with osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Related Resources

Source: NIH ORBD ~ NRC, Osteoporosis and Arthritis: Two Common but Different Conditions, Rev 1/2003

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