Osteoarthritis Vs. Rheumatoid Arthritis

Difference Between Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis

Arthritis is a broad term encompassing the inflammation of one or multiple joints in the body. According to the NHIS, from 2016 to 2018, about 1 in 4 US adults (23.7%), approximately 58.5 million people, had doctor-diagnosed arthritis. It also demonstrated that arthritis was more common in women (24.7%) than men (20.0%).

There can be various lead causes of this condition, such as obesity, wear-and-tear’ or autoimmune diseases. Out of 100 types of arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and osteoarthritis (OA) are the two most common conditions.

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What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is commonly known as ‘wear-and-tear’ arthritis. This joint condition develops when cartilage gets damaged and the joints rub against each other over time. Cartilage is the flexible tissue that connects the joints. It acts as padding and helps in movements. Due to cartilage breakage, support is lacking and causes inflammation in the synovial membrane.

As cartilage continues to deteriorate, the bones eventually come into direct contact. It leads to significant joint pain, rigidity, and inflammation. While osteoarthritis can impact any joint, it commonly affects the neck, hands, knees, and hip joints.

What is rheumatoid arthritis?

The other most common type of arthritis is Rheumatoid arthritis. It is an autoimmune disease that badly affects the joints of the hands, elbows, wrists, knees, ankles, and feet. Rheumatoid arthritis is an excruciating condition that can harm your organs, including the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. That’s why it is also called a ‘systemic’ disease.

In this condition, the immune system attacks the synovial membrane, mistaking it for a foreign invader. There are v numerous types of rheumatoid arthritis, including seronegative rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis arthritis, and many more.

Symptoms of Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis

The symptoms of Osteoarthritis (OA) typically include:
  • Joint Pain: Pain and stiffness in the affected joint(s) are hallmarks of OA. This pain is often worse after periods of inactivity or overuse of the joint.
  • Stiffness: Joints can become stiff, especially in the morning or after sitting for extended periods.
  • Loss of Flexibility: Reduced range of motion and flexibility in the affected joint(s) is a common symptom of OA.
  • Grating Sensation: A sensation of grating or rubbing within the joint as the cartilage deteriorates.
The key symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) include:
  • Joint Pain and Swelling. Unlike OA, which primarily affects one joint, RA often affects multiple joints. Swelling is a prominent feature.
  • Morning Stiffness: Stiffness in the joints, particularly in the morning, can persist for hours.
  • Symmetrical Joint Involvement: RA tends to affect the same joints on both sides of the body, mirroring each other.
  • Fatigue and General Malaise: RA can cause fatigue and overall sickness.

Besides this, a person can have low-grade fever, weight loss, redness, and joint warmth.

Causes of Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis

The slow wear and tear of joint cartilage primarily causes osteoarthritis. Contributing factors may include:

  • Aging: The risk of OA increases with age, as cartilage naturally degenerates over time.
  • Joint Overuse: Repetitive stress on the joints, often due to occupation or sports activities, can accelerate cartilage damage.
  • Joint Injury: Previous joint injuries, such as fractures or ligament tears, can increase the risk of OA in those joints.
  • Single joint: A degenerative disease generally originates in a single joint.

As we mentioned above, RA is an autoimmune disease. Our immune starts attacking the body’s tissues. The exact stimulus for this autoimmune response has yet to be entirely understood, but it can involve genetic and environmental factors.

Additionally, it can affect multiple areas and joints of the body simultaneously.

Diagnosis of Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis

Diagnosing OA involves the following:
  • Physical Examinations: A doctor will examine the affected joint, looking for signs of swelling, tenderness, and range of motion.
  • Imaging: X-rays and MRIs visualize joint damage and assess the severity of cartilage loss.
  • Symptom Assessment: The patient’s reported symptoms and medical history are crucial in diagnosis.
  • Biopsy: In this process, closed synovial biopsy removes a piece of synovial tissue and assesses its condition
Diagnosing RA involves several steps:
  • Physical Examination: A doctor will assess the joints for swelling, redness, and tenderness.
  • Blood Tests: These tests look for specific antibodies and markers associated with RA, like rheumatoid factor and anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide (anti-CCP) antibodies.
  • Imaging: MRI, X-rays, and ultrasounds can help identify joint damage.
  • Synovial Fluid Analysis: Doctors examine the sample of synovial fluid from an affected joint to check for inflammation and specific markers.
  • ESR Test: Elevated ESR levels indicate inflammation in the body.

Treatment of Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis

The management of osteoarthritis focuses on relieving symptoms and improving joint function.

  • Medications: Over-the-counter pain relievers, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and prescription medications can help alleviate pain and inflammation.
  • Physical Therapy: Physical therapists design exercises to improve joint mobility, strengthen supporting muscles, and reduce pain.
  • Lifestyle Modifications: Weight management, joint protection techniques, and assistive devices like braces or canes can help reduce joint strain.
  • Surgery: In severe cases, doctors can recommend joint replacement surgery. In this surgery, doctors replace the impaired joint with a prosthetic one.

RA treatment aims to reduce inflammation and slow the progression of the disease.

  • Medications: Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) like methotrexate and biologics can help suppress the immune system’s response. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and corticosteroids can also provide symptom relief.
  • Physical Therapy: Exercise and physical therapy help maintain joint function and ease pain.
  • Lifestyle and Dietary Modifications: A balanced and healthy diet can help lessen inflammation and manage symptoms.
  • Surgery: In severe cases, joint surgery may be necessary to correct joint deformities.


Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis are distinct conditions with different causes, symptoms, and treatment approaches. Osteoarthritis results from the slow wear and tear of joint cartilage and is primarily age-related. At the same time, Rheumatoid Arthritis is an autoimmune disease; the body’s defense system attacks joint tissues.

Understanding the differences between these two conditions is paramount for proper diagnosis and effective management, as each requires a tailored treatment plan. If you suspect you have either of these conditions, consult a healthcare provider for a proper evaluation and recommendation on the best course of action for your specific case.

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Q.1 What is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease. The damage to joint cartilage and underlying bone characterizes it. It’s typically associated with wear and tear and aging.

Q.2 What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid Arthritis is an autoimmune disorder. The defense system mistakenly attacks the synovium, the lining of the membranes surrounding joints.

Q.3 What about treatments? Do they differ?

Treatment approaches vary significantly. Osteoarthritis is managed with pain relief and lifestyle changes, while Rheumatoid Arthritis often requires disease-modifying medications.

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