What Is the Difference Between Arthritis and Bursitis?

Aging is an unfortunate reality that everyone faces. The human body is immensely capable of handling stressors, but as you age, the effects of stress and strain on the body can begin to show themselves. A decline in energy, slower healing, reduced muscle mass, and wrinkles tend to be among the most common symptoms of aging.

Another aspect of getting older is an increased incidence of joint pain. Joints are complex structures within the body that consist of bones, articulating cartilage, ligaments, and tendons that allow for body movement. Joint pain can be immensely overwhelming and affect overall quality of life if not addressed.

Below is a closer look at arthritis and bursitis, two common causes of joint pain. 

What Is Arthritis?

Arthritis is one of the most common conditions that affect the joints. Arthritis is characterized by an inflammation of the joints. There are a wide range of different types of arthritis.

These can include:

  • Osteoarthritis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Psoriatic arthritis
  • Gout

Osteoarthritis is one of the more common types of arthritis and is commonly referred to as the “wear and tear” form of arthritis. This is because osteoarthritis comes as a result of cartilage being worn away from repeat utilization of the joint. 

Cartilage is the protective layer on top of bones that helps to reduce friction and allows bones to glide past one another. When the cartilage is worn away, it can lead to bone-on-bone friction, which can cause pain. 

Another common form of arthritis is known as rheumatoid arthritis. This form of arthritis is caused by an autoimmune response. 

In the case of rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system mistakenly identifies the joints as a foreign invader and attacks the joints. This causes inflammation and, over time, can damage the joint itself. 

Most forms of arthritis are chronic disorders without a definitive cure. However, there are some treatment options that can help to slow or halt the progression of arthritis. 

If you suffer from joint pain, it is a good idea to contact your primary care provider. If you happen to have something like rheumatoid arthritis, getting it diagnosed early can help to retain the movement you have for longer. 

What Is Bursitis?

Bursitis is another inflammatory condition that affects the joints. Bursitis refers to an inflammation of the bursae, which are fluid-filled sacs that help reduce friction between tissues. 

These bursae tend to be located at the end of bones, where tendons attach muscle groups to the bone. The bursae are located on the surface of the bone and act as a cushion and smooth surface for tendons to effectively move across. 

The inflammation tends to cause swelling within the bursae, which can cause pain. Because of the bursae's proximity to joints, it’s often mixed up with arthritis.

What Are the Differences Between Arthritis and Bursitis?

Both arthritis and bursitis result in pain surrounding the joint, but they are distinct issues. These conditions differ in their causes, diagnosis, and in how they are managed. It’s important to understand these conditions so that you can understand how to manage your pain.

Below is a closer look at these differences. 

Symptoms and Causes

The symptoms and underlying causes of arthritis and bursitis are similar in a number of ways. Joint pain, for example, is one of the most common symptoms of both bursitis and arthritis. Some other symptoms are swelling and redness.

The main way in which these symptoms tend to differ is in their onset. Arthritis pain tends to slowly get worse as time progresses, while the pain from bursitis tends to have a much quicker onset. Another difference is that arthritic pain tends to be worse in the mornings, whereas bursitis pain can increase in the evening. 

The causes of bursitis and arthritis can also be similar. Overuse and exertion, for example, are both underlying causes of osteoarthritis and bursitis. This similarity, however, is not present with other forms of arthritis like rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis. 


The similarities between arthritis and bursitis can be difficult, but a differential diagnosis can be made through a combination of physical exams, imaging, and tests. 

A physical exam could include a range of motion test, where you move your joints in their full range of motion. This can be particularly helpful in differentiating arthritis and bursitis in joints like the shoulder and hips. 

One common test for shoulder pain is to, with your hands by your side, slowly raise your outstretched arms above your head. If you experience pain in the middle of the movement, your provider may diagnose bursitis in the shoulder. Shoulder pain that is felt in just the beginning or throughout the movement may point to another issue, such as arthritis. 

Treatment and Management

The treatment and management of arthritis and bursitis can also differ. As far as pain management, however, both bursitis and arthritis may be treated in a similar manner. Prescription pain relievers and anti-inflammatories may help to soothe inflamed tissue, but sometimes your provider may suggest an injection to provide targeted relief. 

Management and long-term treatment can look very different. Arthritis tends to result in irreversible damage to the joint and will require continual monitoring and treatment to slow progression. Bursitis, however, can often be completely resolved with the proper treatment and muscle-strengthening techniques.

How Can You Cope With Arthritis and Bursitis?

Joint pain can be quite disruptive to your overall quality of life. Individuals with chronic pain are at a much higher likelihood of dealing with a decline in mental health, and finding ways to cope can be difficult. With that being said, many people with these conditions continue to live fulfilling and happy lives, but it is important that you learn how to handle the pain.

The first step is to seek out care. Some conditions, like arthritis, may be chronic, but there are a number of treatments available that can help to slow their progression. On the other hand, bursitis can be completely treated, and seeking care early can help you get on the road to recovery faster. 

Aside from getting treatment, it is also a good idea to modify any activities you are doing that could exacerbate joint issues. For instance, if you are an avid runner experiencing arthritis in your knees, you may want to opt for lower-impact physical activity. The same goes for bursitis.

The most challenging aspect of coping with either of these conditions is dealing with the pain. For some, prescription medication can help to alleviate some of the pain, but others may need to look for additional pain management techniques, like heat and cold therapy. 

Some people also find that complementary pain management techniques like acupuncture help in pain management. 

Can You Prevent Arthritis and Bursitis?

One of the best ways to treat conditions is to work on avoiding them in the first place. While some forms of arthritis are autoimmune and may not be avoided, conditions like osteoarthritis and bursitis can be avoided when you take adequate precautions. 

This primarily involves opting for lower-impact activities that will place less strain on the joints. Strengthening the muscles surrounding the joints may also be helpful in reducing the chances of developing joint pain.

Improving your fitness level can be difficult, especially if you are older and have compounding health problems like heart failure. However, incorporating healthy amounts of exercise can be a crucial aspect of disease management — this is where Carda Health may be able to help. 

Carda Health is a virtual cardiac rehab provider that offers a tailored approach to improving your overall fitness and wellness to help support your quality of life. Our approach mainly focuses on improving your cardiovascular fitness through monitored exercise, as well as strengthening functional mobility. 

Our at-home program utilizes the expertise of a clinical exercise physiologist. This physiologist can prescribe you an exercise regimen that takes your specific limitations into account to help you support your overall wellness. 

The Bottom Line

At the end of the day, bursitis and arthritis are two conditions that can cause joint pain. Differentiating them is difficult and best left to the healthcare professionals. 

The differences outlined above can help provide you with a little more information about these conditions, but if you are suffering from joint pain, you should seek medical expertise. Your primary healthcare provider can help you get on a path to recovery or help you manage the progression of your condition.


Bursitis - Symptoms and causes | Mayo Clinic

Arthritis Types | CDC

Chronic Pain and Mental Health Often Interconnected | American Psychological Association

Acupuncture for Arthritis | Arthritis Foundation

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