Osteoporosis and osteoarthritis are two chronic conditions, but that is where most of their similarities end. In combination with the root word “osteo,” meaning “bone,” the other parts of their names give hints as to their different characteristics. So, what are the main differences between osteoporosis vs. osteoarthritis? It comes down to where damage occurs in the body. With osteoporosis, damage occurs from bone loss that can lead to fractures. In osteoarthritis, inflammation leads to painful and stiff joints.
What is osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis is a deteriorating bone condition. Porosis = pores. Bone is living tissue that is constantly growing, degrading, and changing. The process of bone building peaks around age 25. When the pace of bone degradation overcomes the pace of bone growth, a condition called osteoporosis develops. Bones develop sponge-like pores and become fragile and weak. This loss of bone mass can lead to broken bones, fractures, and other issues.
People with osteoporosis are at risk for bone fractures, some of which can be serious. Women who experience spinal compression fractures in the cervical vertebrae can develop kyphosis, or “dowager’s hump.”
What causes osteoporosis?
The main cause of osteoporosis is lack of strong bone-building in youth, including not getting enough calcium, or getting enough calcium but not being able to utilize it in the body. Growing bodies require 200 to 1,300 milligrams of calcium a day, depending on age and life stage. Some of that calcium is used for organ function, and the remainder is used to grow healthy bone. If there is not enough left over after the organs use their share, then the bones suffer.
Other causes of osteoporosis can include:
- Overuse of corticosteroids
- Lack of exercise (including weight-bearing exercise)
- Bone cancer
- Cushings disease
Some other risk factors for developing this disease are:
- Gender: Women are at greater risk than men
- Race: Asian and Caucasian people have the highest level of risk of all races
- Health factors: Smoking inhibits bone density and increases risk, as does abuse of alcohol
- Eating disorders: People with anorexia nervosa or bulimia are not able to absorb nutrients and build strong bones
- Heredity: People who have a direct family member with osteoporosis are more likely to develop it also
- Other health issues: Rheumatoid arthritis is a risk factor for osteoporosis, and thyroid conditions can increase risk as well
The symptoms of osteoporosis are often non-existent until a person suffers a fracture. The slightest stress on the bones can cause a fracture. Even something as simple as sneezing can cause a painful fracture, and fractures come with an increased risk of mortality.
Because people who experience these fractures are usually older adults, healing times tend to be longer, and they may suffer chronic pain and loss of mobility as a result.
Treatments for osteoporosis
Screening for and treatment of osteoporosis is crucial in certain populations. If you’re a woman over the age of 50 who is at risk (post-menopausal or have any of the above risk factors), talk to your doctor to get a bone density test.
If your doctor finds demineralization and degradation of your bones, they’ll prescribe bisphosphonates to stop it and, in some case, increase bone building. Other ways to treat osteoporosis include changes in diet and adding weight-bearing exercise to strengthen the muscles that support the bones.
What is osteoarthritis?
If you’re wondering if you have osteoporosis vs. osteoarthritis, you should think of how you’re experiencing symptoms. If you’re feeling them at all and it’s not a fracture that alerts you to an issue, you’re probably suffering from osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis involves the bones also, but not in the same way as osteoporosis. This is the most common form of arthritis and it is a “wear and tear” condition that occurs when there is damage to the cartilage within the joints.
This degenerative joint disease can lead to:
- Chronic pain
- Decreased range of motion
- Stiffness or aches in the affected area
In severe cases, bone spurs can form, causing what is called Herberden’s nodes that can further restrict movement, especially in the hands.
Bones come together to form the moveable joints in the body. The end of each bone is covered in cartilage, a soft tissue that helps bones slide across one another smoothly. As joints age and are used over a long period of time, it makes sense that they would become worn down. Once the cartilage becomes worn down, bone rubs on bone, causing pain and inflammation. This rubbing can also puncture the bursa, the small sacs of fluid that cushion each joint. Hips, hands, knees, and spine are the most common locations of osteoarthritis.
Who’s at risk?
Adults over the age of 60 are most at risk for osteoarthritis. Those who experience early onset osteoarthritis have usually suffered some type of injury or repetitive motion stress to the affected joint.
Other risk factors associated with developing osteoarthritis are:
- Weight: Overweight people tend to have earlier onset osteoarthritis due to increased stress on joints
- Injury: This can be due to over-training or an accident
- Growth: Improper development of joints
- Genetic factors: Chances of osteoarthritis increase with a family history of the condition
- Repetitive motion stress: Athletes who train intensively in one way, or young athletes who train year round, have an increased risk for early wear and tear on cartilage, as do people in certain occupations with repetitive motions
Symptoms of osteoarthritis usually come on gradually, however, there is no cure for this chronic disease. There are pain relief approaches though.
Symptoms include increasing pain and stiffness in the joints and decreased mobility or range of motion, especially in the morning or when joints have been immobile for a period of time (e.g., during long periods of sitting or inactivity).
Doctors recommend changes in diet that include increasing amounts of omega-3 fatty acids found in cold-water fish as well as decreasing other types of fat and added sugars that can increase inflammation.
Prescription treatments can include corticosteroid injections directly into the affected joint to reduce inflammation and pain, but doctors will often recommend trying over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) first. Alternative treatments such as biofeedback and acupuncture have had some success, and doctors will always recommend adding gentle exercise to the mix.
Can you have osteoporosis and osteoarthritis?
As both of these bone diseases affect different parts of the body’s internal structures, you can absolutely suffer from both.
Both osteoporosis and osteoarthritis have a genetic component to them, but there are also proactive preventative measures that can be taken to maintain strong bones and joints. Eating well for bone health, with a diet filled with calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, vegetables, and healthy proteins, helps to maintain a strong body, as does following an exercise plan for a healthy weight.
Being overweight and out of shape are risks factors for both conditions, and these are well within a person’s control. Neither condition is a required feature of aging, and taking some simple steps can help ward them off. Wherever you’re at, there are things you can do to help manage your risk and improve your quality of life.
Evaluate your own risk factors for osteoporosis vs. osteoarthritis, then tell us: what changes do you need to make? If you’re ready to get a diagnosis, it’s important to talk to someone who is skilled in pain management. Click the button below to find a pain doctor in your area who can help.