Some years ago I fell and broke a bone in my wrist while riding my bike. The doctor asked me if I had any other problems with my hands. I told him that as a journalist I had pain in my wrist often while working and figured that I had carpal tunnel syndrome like a lot of folks in the newsroom. As he had the X ray of my hand in front of him, he took a look and said that I didn’t have carpal tunnel syndrome at all, but I had some arthritis. That was news to me.
For the record, arthritis is the leading cause of disability in folks over 55 years old. There are actually more than 100 different conditions that cause joint damage that are all forms of arthritis. The two most common are osteoarthritis OA (from bone wear and tear) and rheumatoid arthritis RA (an immune disorder).
It turns out there are several maladies that are often mistaken for arthritis.
I mistook my osteoarthritis for carpal tunnel syndrome CTS which often shows up at the same time as osteoarthritis — the midlife years of 45 to 55. There really is a carpal “tunnel” — a narrow passage in the wrist formed by wrist bones and a ligament along the palm. If the passageway narrows, constricting a key nerve called the median nerve, the result is burning pain, tingling, and numbness.
This is from an MSN web page which no longer is live. Both CTS and OA can be caused by repetitive use, such as typing or hobbies that require the hands to be in an awkward position. Women, smokers, and people with RA are at higher risk.
How they’re different: CTS pain develops gradually but tends to create a more intense pain. A doctor can diagnose carpal tunnel using simple tests that may involve bending the wrist and timing how long it takes for a tingling sensation to appear. Wearing a special splint can relieve symptoms.
A second fooler is fibromyalgia. The MSN web page said that like arthritis, fibromyalgia is a pain syndrome, although its cause is unknown. Pain may cluster on certain tender points — the neck, shoulder, back, hips, arms, legs — where the joint pain of arthritis also exists. (People with rheumatoid arthritis sometimes develop fibromyalgia.)
How they’re different: Fibromyalgia pain (often described as a generalized achiness) eventually extends beyond just the joints. And it tends to cause extreme chronic fatigue not necessarily seen in arthritis. Other symptoms of fibromyalgia include sleep disruption, mental “fog,” headaches, and sensitivity to noise.
Because its causes are little understood, treatments are far less advanced for fibromyalgia than for arthritis.
What about gout? The word gout may conjure up images of fat, Colonial-era old men, but it’s a modern problem, too — and technically a type of arthritis. It causes painful inflammation, swelling, and pain in the joints, often the big toe.
How they’re different: Unlike osteoarthritis, gout attacks tend to come and go. One day you’re fine, and the next day a joint is swollen, shiny red or purple, and extremely painful.
Gout isn’t caused by wear and tear or an immune disorder but by a build-up of uric acid in the blood. (Sometimes too much uric acid is produced; sometimes one’s kidneys can’t rid the body of it fast enough.) Seafood, organ meats, and beer are among foods that raise uric acid levels; so can diuretics.
Doctors can diagnose gout by examining joint fluid under a microscope. Future attacks are preventable by managing diet and other factors.
Is it just flu afflicting you? How they’re the same: Both arthritis and influenza involve a creeping, generalized achiness, especially around the joints. Both kinds of muscular pain can be eased with over-the-counter pain relievers. People with rheumatoid arthritis are at higher risk of developing complications such as pneumonia from flu, as are those who take steroids, prednisone, and certain other arthritis treatments.
How they’re different: Flu is caused by a virus, not a degenerative or autoimmune disorder. When muscle-ache symptoms are accompanied by a fever, cough, chills, or headache, it’s a pretty good bet that a virus like flu is at fault. The good news: Though flu makes you more miserable in the short run, it’s a shorter run. Arthritis is a chronic condition you learn to live with.
Last but not least is tendinitis. How they’re the same: Like some types of arthritis, tendinitis is caused by damaging overuse of the joint — usually the shoulders, elbows (“tennis elbow”), knees, hips, wrists, heels.
Both arthritis and tendinitis can cause pain that worsens with overuse. The inflammation both conditions can create makes the affected area tender and painful to move.
How they’re different: Tendinitis is a specific kind of injury to the tendons, tough cords of tissue that connect muscles and bones. It tends to cause pain over a wider area than arthritis, which is limited to the joint.
Also, tendinitis can heal relatively quickly with simple measures such as rest, ice, pain medication, and physical therapy, because it’s an injury. Arthritis doesn’t go away with treatment or time; it’s a chronic (ongoing) condition that you learn to minimize and live with.
As a long time arthritis sufferer, I have posted at least 5 items on arthritis and dealing with the pain it causes. You can find them by searching ‘arthritis’ on the right in our search box, or clicking on the ‘arthritis’ tag.