Bursitis Vs. Arthritis: Whats The Difference?

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

If you have pain or stiffness in one of your joints, you may wonder what underlying condition is causing it. Joint pain can be caused by several conditions, including bursitis and types of arthritis.

Arthritis can come in several forms, including osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). RA is more inflammatory than OA.

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Bursitis, OA, and RA have some similar symptoms, but the long-term outlook and treatment plans are different.

Most cases of bursitis can be treated and go away. OA and RA are both chronic, though you may go through periods of lessened symptoms and flares of symptoms.

Symptom comparison

Bursitis, OA, and RA may appear to be similar when just looking at symptoms related to the joint, but each condition is distinct.

How can you tell?

It may be difficult to determine the cause of your joint pain. You’ll likely need a doctor to diagnose your condition as short-term symptoms of the conditions can be quite similar.

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Joint pain that comes and goes may be bursitis, while more chronic pain could be OA.

You may consider bursitis if you notice a recent onset of symptoms after you engaged in a repetitive motion activity like playing tennis or crawling around on your hands and knees.

RA symptoms may move around to different joints in your body. Joint swelling is usually present, and sometimes nodules in the skin called rheumatoid nodules are also present.

Diagnosis

Your doctor will need to perform a physical examination, discuss your symptoms, and take a health and family history to begin to diagnose your condition, regardless of whether you have bursitis, OA, or RA.

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These initial actions may be enough to diagnose bursitis. Your doctor may order laboratory tests to rule out infections or ultrasonography to confirm bursitis or tendinitis or further evaluation to diagnose cellulitis.

It’s more common to undergo imaging and other lab tests for OA and RA. Your doctor may even recommend a specialist known as a rheumatologist for consultation and treatment of these long-lasting conditions.

Bursitis

Bursitis occurs when a fluid-filled sac called a bursa swells. You have bursas throughout your body near your joints that provide padding between your:

  • bones
  • skin
  • muscles
  • tendons

You may experience this inflammation of the bursa if you engage in an activity that requires repetitive motion like a sport, hobby, or manual work.

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Diabetes, crystal deposition (gout), and infections may also cause the condition.

It’s generally a temporary condition that goes away after a few weeks of treatment. It may come back from time to time. It can become chronic if it’s not treated or if it’s caused by another condition.

Osteoarthritis

This may be the type of arthritis that first comes to mind when you hear that term. OA causes joint pain from wear and tear over many years. It alters your entire joint and isn’t currently reversible.

Usually, OA occurs when the cartilage in the joint breaks down over many years. Cartilage provides padding between bones in your joints. Without enough cartilage, it can become very painful to move your joint.

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Aging, overuse of the joint, injury, and being overweight can influence your likelihood of developing OA. There’s also a genetic predisposition in some cases, so it may be present in several family members.

Rheumatoid arthritis

This type of joint pain is actually caused in part by the immune system and not the structure of the joint itself.

RA is an autoimmune condition, meaning that your immune system is in overdrive and targets healthy cells, creating inflammation in the body.

Autoimmune conditions can last a lifetime and cannot be cured, but they can be treated.

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RA occurs when your immune system attacks healthy cells in your joint lining, leading to swelling and discomfort. This can lead to permanent damage to your joints if not treated. RA can also attack your organs.

Smoking, periodontal disease, being female, and having a family history of the condition may increase your risk of developing RA.

Treatments

The outcomes for all of these conditions vary, as do their treatments. Read below for ways you can treat bursitis, OA, and RA.

Bursitis

This condition can be treated with a variety of at-home methods, over-the- counter (OTC) medications, and interventions from a doctor or specialist.

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First-line treatment for bursitis may include:

  • applying ice and heat to the affected joint
  • resting and avoiding repetitive movements in the affected joint
  • performing exercises to loosen the joint
  • adding padding to sensitive joints when engaging in manual activities
  • wearing a brace or splint to support the joint
  • taking OTC medications like nonsteroidal anti- inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and naproxen, to manage pain and reduce swelling

If the symptoms don’t lessen with these treatments, your doctor may recommend physical or occupational therapy, stronger oral or injectable prescription medications, or surgery.

It’s important to note that only rarely is surgery recommended.

Osteoarthritis

Treatment for OA will focus on reducing symptoms, rather than curing them, and maintaining function. Your doctor may recommend:

  • medications, including OTC and prescription drugs, including topicals
  • exercise and other activity
  • lifestyle modifications, like avoiding repetitive activities and managing your weight
  • physical and occupational therapy
  • braces, splints, and other supports
  • surgery, if symptoms are very debilitating
Rheumatoid arthritis
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Your doctor may recommend treating joint pain as it occurs if you have RA. But treating RA involves a wide range of management strategies to avoid flares and keep the condition in remission.

Remission means that you don’t have active symptoms, and normal inflammatory markers in the blood can occur.

Managing joint pain may include taking NSAIDs or other pain-relieving and inflammation-reducing medications. Your doctor may also recommend resting the joints but staying active in other ways.

Long-term management of RA may include taking prescription medications like disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs and biological response modifiers.

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Your doctor may also encourage you to avoid stress, stay active, eat healthily, and stop smoking, if you smoke, to avoid triggering the condition and experiencing joint pain.

When to see a doctor

If you’ve been experiencing joint pain for a few weeks or longer, visit your doctor.

You should see a doctor right away if you:

  • become unable to move your joint
  • notice the joint is very swollen and the skin is overly red
  • experience severe symptoms that interfere with your ability to complete daily activities

You should also see your doctor if you have a fever or flu-like symptoms along with joint pain. A fever may be a sign of an infection.

The bottom line

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Joint pain may be caused by one of many conditions.

Bursitis is usually a temporary form of joint pain, while OA and RA are longer- lasting forms.

See your doctor for a proper diagnosis, as each condition is treated differently.

You may be able to try interventions to cure bursitis, while OA and RA will need to be managed long-term.

Read more on: osteoarthritis


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