The Differences Between Arthritis and Bursitis

There are several differences between bursitis and arthritis. Do you want to know what they are? Today we'll show you the characteristics of each condition and tell you when you should seek the help of a specialist.
The Differences Between Arthritis and Bursitis

Written by Josberth Johan Benitez Colmenares, 26 July, 2021

Last update: 26 July, 2021

Although they’re diseases that share some symptoms, there are many differences between arthritis and bursitis. It’s very important to correctly diagnose which of the two is causing the symptoms, as the treatment and prognosis differ depending on the case.

This should be carried out in the presence of a specialist, as the diagnostic process requires imaging and laboratory tests.

However, it’s important to know the differences between bursitis and arthritis. We’ll have a look at their main characteristics and contrast each condition with their similarities and disparities.

What’s bursitis?

Differences between arthritis and bursitis include location
One of the fundamental differences between bursitis and arthritis is knowing what part of the joint is affected.

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, bursitis is inflammation of the bursae. Bursae are small fluid-filled bags that help to cushion the friction that occurs between the body’s tissues.

Through injury, overuse, or infection, bursae often become inflamed and create what’s called bursitis. The inflammation is temporary, doesn’t cause deformation, and can be treated in a couple of weeks.

In theory, the condition can affect any part of the body, but, in practice, there are certain areas more prone to inflammation. The tissues most frequently affected by bursitis are the following:

  • Retromalleolar tendon: Also known as anterior Achilles tendon bursitis or Albert’s disease. Rigid shoes, injuries or some diseases can cause it.
  • Posterior Achilles tendon: This is also called, in some cases, Haglund’s deformity. It’s more common in women and some researchers endorse the use of surgery during treatment.
  • Hip: This is more frequent in older people and in women. In some contexts, it’s known as trochanteric bursitis. In addition to injury and overuse, some diseases like rheumatoid arthritis can cause it, according to this evidence.
  • Knee: Also called chicken foot bursitis or Pes Anserine bursitis, as Stanford Health Care points out. It can develop in the absence of stretching after doing exercise, or due to excess weight and arthritis.

Other frequent manifestations are elbow and patella bursitis. Most of these limit movement, but don’t cause major problems after they’re treated.

What’s arthritis?

Arthritis encompasses a group of chronic diseases that are characterized, for the most part, by inflammation and stiffness of the joints. Harvard Health Publishing states that there are more than 100 manifestations of this type, each with its own peculiarities. The two most common ones are the following:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis: This is an autoimmune disease in which the body itself attacks several joints at the same time (and for most of the time). It primarily affects the hands, wrists, and knees. Obesity, genetic inheritance, sex (it’s more common in women) and aging are risk factors, as noted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  • Osteoarthritis: According to researchers, this is the most common joint disease in the world. Its prevalence reaches 80% in people over 75 years of age. It is characterized by the degradation of cartilage in the joints.

Other common manifestations with gout, osteoarthritis, lupus, and fibromyalgia. Each one develops in a different way, although, in general, all tend to be chronic. This means that they’re long-term conditions that require treatment to prevent the symptoms from worsening.

The differences between arthritis and bursitis

Now that you have a general understanding of what these conditions are, it’s time to explore the differences between arthritis and bursitis. We have already mentioned some distinctive elements, but we’d now like to condense them into the following list:

  • Bursitis is an acute manifestation, while arthritis develops chronically.
  • Bursitis can be treated in a couple of weeks and its sequelae are minimal. Arthritis, on the other hand, requires permanent treatment and can seriously limit the mobility of patients.
  • The inflammation of arthritis lies in the joint itself. In the case of bursitis, it is located in the bags that line the tissues.
  • Bursitis can appear suddenly, most often after overexertion. All types of arthritis appear progressively (except septic arthritis).
  • The diagnostic process for arthritis is more complex. It requires several imaging tests, laboratory tests, and ruling out explanations for the different symptoms. Some variants take several months to diagnose.

These are the main differences between arthritis and bursitis. In general, we can say that the location and evolution of both is different, which allows the specialist to distinguish between the two diseases and their particular characteristics.

Similarities between arthritis and bursitis

The differences between arthritis and bursitis are varied
Despite the differences, the fact that they have come manifestations in common causes most people to confuse the two conditions.

Despite their differences, there are some similarities that can confuse those affected. Among the main ones we highlight the following:

  • Both are characterized by an inflammatory process
  • The swelling may be accompanied by pain, stiffness, and sensitivity to pressure or touch
  • The episodes can develop on the back, knees, hips, and wrists
  • Finally, the affected area may become slightly red

These signs can make patients with bursitis suspect that they have some variant of arthritis, and vice versa. As the diagnosis can’t be made from home, you should seek medical assistance to rule out any of them and other possible explanations for the symptoms.

When to seek medical assistance?

Seeking a specialist is a very important step to prevent future complications. Keep in mind that the treatment is different for each case and the evolution of arthritis, in the absence of therapy, has a worse prognosis. Because of this, you should seek medical assistance when you begin to notice discomfort in the joints and other areas of the body.

Acting early on allows you to control the evolution of the condition and minimize the impact of symptoms. It’s also useful to rule out other explanations of the symptoms, as a dozen diseases can hide behind them. It’s even possible that both bursitis and arthritis could have been caused by another condition, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Don’t hesitate to seek medical help if symptoms persist for several days. Both conditions are very treatable these days and you can include a series of modifications in your day-to-day life to reduce the frequency with which you suffer from the symptoms.

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  • Arden N, Nevitt MC. Osteoarthritis: epidemiology. Best Pract Res Clin Rheumatol. 2006 Feb;20(1):3-25.
  • Chen CH, Huang PJ, Chen TB, Cheng YM, Lin SY, Chiang HC, Huang CY, Huang CK. Surgical treatment for Haglund’s deformity. Kaohsiung J Med Sci. 2001 Aug;17(8):419-22.
  • Raman D, Haslock I. Trochanteric bursitis–a frequent cause of ‘hip’ pain in rheumatoid arthritis. Ann Rheum Dis. 1982 Dec;41(6):602-3.