What’s the Difference Between Arthralgia and Arthritis?

Image: Esther Max/ Flickr

Image: Esther Max/ Flickr

If you’re like a lot of people who suffer from fibromyalgia, you may have noticed aching in your joints from time to time. And if you’ve spent time researching the problem, you’ve probably noticed that the words arthritis and arthralgia both seem to come up when it comes to joint pain.

Understanding the difference between these two terms can be confusing, but it also might be important when it comes to getting an idea of what’s causing your symptoms.

So, what exactly is the difference? And why does it matter when you have fibromyalgia?

Arthralgia Vs. Arthritis

Let’s start with the condition that people tend to be more familiar with: arthritis. Arthritis is really a broad term that describes damage to the joints. The most common symptoms are things like:

  • Joint pain.
  • Swelling in the joints.
  • Stiffness (particularly in the morning).

There’s actually no single disease called “arthritis.” Instead, there are over 100 different conditions that can lead to the symptoms of arthritis. If that sounds confusing, don’t worry. We can actually break it down into four broader categories to help.

First, there’s degenerative arthritis. This occurs when the cartilage, a thin disc of tissue that cushions the bones from each other, wears away. As a result, the bones begin to grind against each other. This makes the joints inflamed and leads to pain. The most typical example of degenerative arthritis is osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is a common condition among older people, as a lifetime of wear on the joints starts to affect the cartilage. But being overweight or previous injuries can also contribute to the condition.

Second, there’s inflammatory arthritis, a condition where the body’s immune system begins to attack the lining of the joints. Your body naturally produces antibodies that attack and destroy foreign cells like bacteria. But sometimes, these antibodies begin destroying your own cells instead. Rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis are both forms of inflammatory arthritis. And while we don’t fully understand what causes these conditions, genetics seem to play a very important role.

Then, there’s infectious arthritis. As you might expect, infectious arthritis is the result of infection. Bacteria, fungus, and viruses can all infiltrate the body and infect the joints, causing them to swell and leading to arthritis.

The final form is metabolic arthritis. Gout is the most well-known example and is caused by the body failing to break down uric acid. The acid then forms crystals in the joints, leading to sharp spikes of pain.

As you can see, arthritis is a complicated condition. Arthralgia, on the surface at least, is more straightforward. Arthralgia is a term that means “joint pain,” and is used to describe the symptom of having pain in your joints.

Arthralgia is a common complaint because there are many different conditions that can cause it. Arthritis, obviously, is one of them. But anything from an injury to infection to disease can cause joint pain.

The distinction between the two conditions might not seem important. But when you have fibromyalgia, understanding when joint pain is caused by arthritis and when it’s caused by another condition can make a big difference in how you get treatment.

Why Is The Difference Important?

People with fibromyalgia are at a higher risk than the general population of developing a number of different forms of arthritis. But people with fibromyalgia also seem to develop joint pain even when they don’t have arthritis.

Essentially, these people are experiencing arthralgia, but not arthritis.

But because arthritis is one of the most obvious causes of joint pain, and because people with fibromyalgia often develop arthritis, it’s usually the first thing that doctors look for. However, arthritis is often hard to diagnose, and sometimes leaves no visible signs of inflammation.

So it’s possible that someone with fibromyalgia could be misdiagnosed with arthritis. And it can be months or even years before doctors realize that they don’t actually have the condition.

That’s why it’s important to know the signs that joint pain is actually being caused by arthritis.

The most obvious sign of arthritis is swelling in the joints. The skin surrounding the joints is often red and inflamed as well. In addition, stiffness that peaks in the morning is a good sign of arthritis. And if you’re suffering from these symptoms, the odds are better that you have the condition than the kind of general joint pain that comes with fibromyalgia.

Ultimately, only a doctor can really diagnosis what’s causing your joint problems. But by being aware of the different symptoms, you can help increase your odds of getting an accurate diagnosis.

So, what do you think? Have you suffered from joint pain? What caused it? Let us know in the comments.