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What's the difference between osteoporosis, osteopenia and osteoarthritis?

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Sep 20, 2023.

Official answer


Osteoporosis and osteopenia are both caused by a reduction in bone density, whereas osteoarthritis is a degeneration of a joint due to a breakdown of cartilage.

Osteoporosis is a condition that affects bone density. Bone density is reduced, which makes bones porous and brittle and they break easily.

Osteopenia is when your bone density is less than normal but is not decreased to the extent that your bones will break easily, which is the main characteristic of osteoporosis. Osteopenia is a precursor to osteoporosis. Taking steps to improve your bone mineral density, including dietary measures and increasing weight-bearing exercise, can prevent osteopenia progressing to osteoporosis.

Osteoarthritis is a condition where the cartilage that covers the end of each bone in a joint begins to break down, leaving the ends of the bones unprotected. Cartilage helps bones to glide over each other and cushions them from impact. Initial symptoms of osteoarthritis are usually mild and may include a temporary morning stiffness in a joint lasting less than 30 minutes. Symptoms become more prominent when there is significant cartilage breakdown and include:

  • More pronounced pain that comes on during movement and decreases with rest
  • Persistent stiffness in a joint or joints
  • Noticeable swelling around the affected joint(s)
  • Bony growths, commonly seen around the fingers. These are called Heberden’s nodes and are more common in older women
  • A creaking sound during movement due to bone rubbing against bone or roughened cartilage
  • With very advanced disease, the joint may feel “hot” due to inflammation within the joint.

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