What is the difference between osteoarthritis and osteoporosis?

Osteoarthritis is the most common of more than 100 different forms of arthritis. Also called "degenerative arthritis" or "wear-and-tear arthritis," osteoarthritis appears as a person ages. As the body grows older, the cartilage or cushion between bones softens and deteriorates. Unfortunately, the body cannot regenerate cartilage. Gradually the joint spaces narrow, which causes the ligaments supporting the joint to loosen up. Eventually, the cartilage can virtually disappear, allowing the bones in the joint to rub together. This causes instability and pain. Another problem is calcium deposits in the joint such as spurs which do not add to the strength of the bone but cause more pain.

Joints which have been frequently used over the years, such as the spine, hips, knees and hands, are the most likely to develop osteoarthritis. The primary symptom of osteoarthritis is pain. In some ways, pain can be helpful because it is a signal telling you to take it easy for a while and to seek medical attention if symptoms don't subside. Once the diagnosis of osteoarthritis is confirmed through a health history, physical examination and x-rays, your doctor may prescribe a treatment program beginning with physical therapy and exercise to promote maximum joint mobility and preserve the range of motion of your joints. Other elements of osteoarthritis treatment may include instruction in body mechanics, an ongoing exercise program, instruction in joint protection (including use of supportive devices), application of heat or cold to the painful joint, appropriate medication to relieve joint irritation and swelling, and weight control. Surgery, such as joint replacement, may be helpful when other treatment options have not been effective.

Osteoporosis affects the bone itself, not the cartilage. Bone integrity and strength are lost, raising the risk of a fracture. It is common not to know you have osteoporosis until you notice a deformity such as Dowager's hump. This hump is seen in some older people when their upper back slumps forward (exaggeratedkyphosis). Fractures of the vertebrae cause a "wedge" rather than a well-formed block, allowing the spine to collapse forward. What is also confusing is this hump may also be due to osteoarthritis. The pain associated with osteoporotic fracture of the spine is sudden and severe, whereas the inflammation of osteoarthritis is gradual. Both diseases can cause pain in similar locations. They can also occur together in the same person. Your health care provider can be very helpful in distinguishing the correct diagnosis and treatment.