Osteoarthritis Versus Rheumatoid Arthritis

By Michele C. Hollow @michelechollow
August 30, 2017

These two forms of arthritis have different symptoms and treatments. Here’s what you need to know about osteoarthritis versus rheumatoid arthritis.

If you suffer from osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis, you know your joints hurt. Having painful joints, however, is where the comparison ends. The main difference between osteoarthritis versus rheumatoid arthritis is that osteoarthritis is caused by mechanical wear and tear on your joints, while rheumatoid arthritis occurs when your body’s immune system attacks your joints.

Other differences exist, too. It’s important to know the symptoms and the differences so you can talk to your doctor in order to get an accurate diagnosis.


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Osteoarthritis, also called OA, is the most common form of arthritis. More than 30 million adults in the U.S. suffer from osteoarthritis. About 1.5 million American adults have rheumatoid arthritis. Looking at osteoarthritis versus rheumatoid arthritis, you’ll find these differences:

  1. Age is a factor. Osteoarthritis usually affects older adults, while rheumatoid arthritis can occur any time.
  2. How quickly the disease happens should also be taken into consideration. Osteoarthritis occurs over time, a slow progression; this makes it a degenerative disease. Rheumatoid arthritis, also known as RA, moves at a quicker pace, often happening quite rapidly. From the first time you notice it, rheumatoid arthritis can get worse within a few weeks or months. It’s an autoimmune disease, which means your body can attack itself.
  3. The pain level can be the same. However, with osteoarthritis, joints ache and can become tender with little or no swelling. It’s the swelling and stiffness that you should watch for with rheumatoid arthritis.
  4. The pain moves differently, too. With osteoarthritis, symptoms usually start on one side of your body and can spread to the other side. The symptoms are gradual and limited to one set of joints, such as your fingers, hips, knees, or spine. In rheumatoid arthritis, the joints on your left and right sides of your body are equally affected. So, if you suffer from rheumatoid arthritis in one hand, you’ll also feel it in the other hand. It also occurs in both wrists, elbows, or feet at the same time.
  5. The duration differs, too. Osteoarthritis symptoms can last less than an hour. For instance, you can wake up feeling stiff. That stiffness often returns at the end of the day or after a fair amount of activity. With rheumatoid arthritis, the stiffness that you wake up with lasts longer than one hour. 

While the symptoms and diseases are different, some of the treatments are the same. The goals are to reduce pain, improve function and movement, and reduce damage to the joints.

Regarding osteoarthritis versus rheumatoid arthritis, your doctor can prescribe anti-inflammatory or corticosteroid medications. For rheumatoid arthritis, your doctor may prescribe drugs that suppress your immune system; these drugs stop your immune system from attacking your joints.

The one thing you can do if you have either type of arthritis is to lose weight. “Carrying around excess weight can cause achy, swollen, stiff joints,” said Robert Bolash, MD, at Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Pain Management.

Weight bearing joints, such as your knees and hips, can feel worse when you’re overweight. “Those areas on your body bear most of your load,” Bolash said.

One of the best ways to drop pounds without putting a lot of stress on your body is by swimming. “That and water aerobics are good options,” Bolash added. “In water your body floats, and you take much of the weight off your joints. Moving doesn’t hurt as much.”

If you find that movement is painful, talk to a physical therapist. A good physical therapist will be able to offer advice on proper footwear and how to prevent pain while exercising or moving. Your doctor will also be able to direct you to the right types of treatment for your osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis.


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March 18, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA