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Merrimack Valley

June 16, 2014

Knowing the difference between rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis

Question: My primary care physician has made an appointment for me to see a specialist because he is concerned I may have rheumatoid arthritis rather than osteoarthritis. Should I be worried and what is the difference?

Answer: In a previous column information was provided about the most common form of arthritis which is osteoarthritis, a disease in which cartilage in your joints deteriorates. It affects roughly 27 million Americans, and is most common in people age 65 and over. There is another, less common, form of arthritis - rheumatoid arthritis (RA) - that affects more than 1.5 million Americans. RA is a disease of unknown cause that makes your immune system to mistakenly attack healthy cells, such as the ones lining your joints. A combination of genetic and infectious agents may cause RA, which results in fluid build- up in flexible joints, leading to inflammation and pain.

RA can make cartilage wear away, and result in bone loss. The inflammation can also affect your skin, eyes, heart or lungs. RA is seen most often in your hands, wrist or elbows, in knee and ankle joints. There is no cure for RA, and its symptoms can come and go. Sometimes if treated properly, the symptoms can go into remission.

Three out of four people affected by RA are women. Although RA can occur at any age usually the onset is diagnosed most often between the ages of 40 and 60. The diagnosis of RA is not always a simple matter, but a blood test can look for proteins found in tissue that has been damaged by RA. This is a likely indicator that you have RA. There are several other tests to confirm the presence of RA, and doctors often will take X-rays to look at the extent of joint damage. For many people, RA first appears as an inflammation in the knuckles, feet and wrists---progressing later to elbows, shoulders, hips and knees. RA can make you feel fatigued, cause loss of appetite, weight loss or a low-grade fever.

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