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People often get arthritis and osteoporosis mixed up. And that’s understandable when you take into account the similarities between the two conditions – they both sound alike (especially when you hear terms like “osteoarthritis”), they´re both chronic conditions (i.e. they have no cure) and they often occur simultaneously. Women who have already gone through menopause, are not only more prone to developing osteoporosis, they are also two or three times more likely to end up developing arthritis. While both of these conditions affect the locomotor system, there’s actually quite a big difference in their symptoms and how they are diagnosed and treated.
Osteoporosis – the “silent illness”
Osteoporosis (literally – “porous bones”) is a condition involving loss of bone mineral density that causes the bones to become fragile and brittle. Osteoporosis often doesn’t provoke any symptoms whatsoever, which means it’s quite common for a broken bone to be the first sign alerting a person to its existence. Fractures caused by osteoporosis most often occur in the spine, hips and the bones in the wrist.
Osteoporosis can be diagnosed using tests to measure the bone mineral density (BMD) of the spine and hips – generally using a technique called central dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (or central DXA).
Arthritis, on the other hand, is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation of joint tissue (for example in the knees, hips, knuckles etc.). The condition is extremely painful and often leads to immobility. X-rays can be used to diagnose arthritis, although a simple blood test, accompanied by a physical exam and medical history is often all it takes to reach a diagnosis.
The link between arthritis and osteoporosis
While, as explained above, the conditions are actually quite different, it’s not uncommon for them to appear simultaneously. Several clinical studies have shown that people with rheumatoid arthritis often experience more bone fractures than people who don’t have the condition. There are several reasons for this:
First of all – and as already stated – women who have already gone through menopause (especially those who had their last period relatively early) are more prone to osteoporosis. This is because, a woman’s estrogen levels drop quite dramatically after menopause, and estrogen is one of the female hormones that helps prevent bone loss.
At the same time, the pain and loss of joint flexibility associated with arthritis often leads to inactivity, which (as will be discussed below) is a risk factor for the development of osteoporosis.
In addition, the treatment with corticosteroids that is generally recommended for arthritis can, in some cases, lead to a significant loss of bone mineral density. In these cases, it may be advisable to supplement the treatment with other medications that are also effective in managing the illness – bisphosphonates, for example.
Other studies say that the above-mentioned elements are merely associated factors. They claim that it is the rheumatoid arthritis itself that leads to loss of bone mineral density, especially in the areas of bone close to the joints.
How to protect against osteoporosis
A balanced diet (rich in calcium and vitamin D) is vitally important to bone health. Calcium is readily found in dairy products (especially those that are fortified with calcium) and dark green leafy vegetables like Swiss chard and spinach. If you are lactose intolerant there are a variety of supplements that will help ensure you meet the 1,200 mg recommended daily amount of calcium. Vitamin D, which plays an extremely important role in the absorption of calcium, can be found (in high concentrations) in egg whites, fish and liver.
We often forget that bones are living tissue that can be strengthened with exercise. The best kinds of exercise are walking, climbing stairs and, arthritis permitting, dancing and lifting weights. While exercise can be especially challenging if you have arthritis, it’s also extremely beneficial – improving the health of your bones and your joints.
Smoking and alcohol
Smoking is just as harmful for your bones as it is for your heart or lungs. Not only can it cause early menopause (meaning the women lose bone density earlier than usual), it also has a detrimental effect on the absorption of calcium. In the same way, alcohol abuse can have a big effect on a person’s appetite and nutrition and people who drink a lot are more prone to falling.
Author: Ramón Rodríguez, Journalist
Last Modification: February 6, 2017
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