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Rheumatoid Arthritis vs Osteoarthritis: Are they Different?

Rheumatoid Arthritis vs Osteoarthritis

Rheumatoid Arthritis vs Osteoarthritis - (Image Credit: Shutterstock)

30-Second Summary
  • There is a difference between Osteoarthritis vs. Rheumatoid Arthritis.
  • The two common types of arthritis are OA and RA.
  • Osteoarthritis affects more people in the U.S. than RA.
  • OA is caused by the wear and tear of your joint cartilage, while RA is caused by your immune system attacking the healthy tissues in your body.
  • OA generally affects the elderly, while RA affects both the young and the old.
  • Dig deeper into the manifestations of Osteoarthritis vs. Rheumatoid Arthritis
  • People with OA or RA can experience joint pain, stiffness, and limitation in motion. 
  • OA and RA cannot be cured. However, there are treatment options that help address or lessen arthritic symptoms linked to OA or RA.


Arthritis is a general term often used for joint inflammation. However, arthritis can come in different forms. It can be Osteoarthritis or Rheumatoid Arthritis. 

Though both cases affect the joints of the human body, the difference between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis is known by health specialists. Joints in good condition help a person move, twist, or bend. Healthy joints can glide against each other without any creaking sound. However, with arthritis, simple movements, such as walking and going up and down the stairs become challenging because of pain. 

Arthritis is a disease that commonly affects the foot, knee, hand, hip, and spine. It can affect other joints in your body as well. Moreover, it is prevalent among the elderly and is incurable. 

Osteoarthritis is caused by the wearing and tearing of your cartilage, which is responsible for cushioning your joints. It happens when cartilage breaks down, causing your bones to rub against each other, resulting in pain and more damage. 

Rheumatoid arthritis, on the other hand, is a systemic or autoimmune disease. It happens when your body’s defense system attacks your joints for no reason. It can attack several joints of your body all at once. 

Unfortunately, the primary cause for both OA and RA is unknown. That said, let us further dig into the question—What is the difference between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis?

OA vs RA: Key Comparisons

OA vs RA

Over 30 million individuals in the U.S. have osteoarthritis. As mentioned, it is caused by the degeneration of the joints due to cartilage breakdown and movement may cause extreme pain in the joints. OA generally starts in one joint. It is common in elderlies above 65 years old.

On the contrary, rheumatoid arthritis is less common. About 1.5 million people get a diagnosis for rheumatoid arthritis. It is a chronic, autoimmune, inflammatory disease that targets your synovium/synovial membrane – the structure that contains the fluid that lubricates your joints.

However, it can have an impact on your organs as well. RA usually attacks multiple joints. It is common in individuals from 30 to 60 years old. Additionally, women tend to get the disease, while men acquire rheumatoid arthritis later in their lives. 

Below is a table that gives you a glance at the key comparisons of Osteoarthritis vs. Rheumatoid Arthritis.

Osteoarthritis Rheumatoid Arthritis
Prevalence According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 35.2 million adults in the U.S. are affected with osteoarthritis. About 1.5 million people in the U.S. get a diagnosis for rheumatoid arthritis.
Classification Osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease. Degeneration is the process where the tissues in your body suffer from deterioration and functional disability due to “wear and tear”, aging, and injury. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease. With an autoimmune disease, your body’s immune system wrongly attacks your tissues. Normally, your immune system guards your body against viruses and bacteria. When foreign invaders attack the body, your immune system fights back. With RA, your system mistakenly identifies your joints as foreign. So, it releases antibodies to attack even healthy cells.
Effect Osteoarthritis is the effect of cartilage loss. Your joint starts to collapse. The breakdown slowly progresses over time, which can result in swelling, pain, and stiffness. In worse cases, it can cause disability; some individuals will have difficulty doing the activities of daily living. Rheumatoid arthritis is the effect of joint lining impairment. As RA develops, your synovium thickens and inflames, producing more synovial fluid that your body doesn’t need. So, your joints become stiff and painful. Too much fluid in your joint can stretch your synovium. Note that your synovium is responsible for holding your joints together. When the swelling lessens, the membrane remains stretched out, causing your joints to be unstable.
Early-Stage Presentation Osteoarthritis generally affects only a single joint. It can be caused by repetitive injury to the joint. Rheumatoid arthritis generally affects multiple joints since it is a systemic /autoimmune disease. The diagnosis for rheumatoid arthritis usually requires lab tests.
Onset People get osteoarthritis as they age due to the “wear and tear” factor. Women usually develop OA after 50 years old when compared to men. Generally, it hits people at 65 years old and above. Rheumatoid arthritis can start at an early age, but the chances increase as people age. It generally affects people who are 30 to 60 years old.
Gender Distinction None Women tend to develop this disease two times higher than men.

Characteristics of OA and RA

Joint pain and inflammation
Joint pain and inflammation can be a symptom of any disease. In rheumatoid arthritis, symptoms progress slowly for weeks. Stiffness and fatigue are the usual early symptoms. You can also expect low-grade fever and weight loss with a diagnosis for rheumatoid arthritis.

Symptoms of RA include:

  • Stiff, tender, and swollen joints. It affects joints symmetrically (both sides), especially the neck, elbows, wrists, hands, knees, ankles, and feet. Take a note of these areas to identify the difference between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Morning stiffness. Morning stiffness is a common symptom of arthritis. It develops after sitting or sleeping for long hours. Usually, it will last for up to an hour or more.
  • Nodules. RA nodules may vary in size. They can be as small as a pea and large as a mothball. A nodule is an obvious difference between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. These bumps usually form on your leg bones, spine, knuckles, and elbows.

Additionally, a person with a diagnosis for rheumatoid arthritis may develop the following systemic symptoms:

  • Appetite loss
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Low-grade fever

Contrastingly, OA symptoms can be mild or severe. Symptoms include the following:

  • Sharp or burning pain. During the early stages of OA, pain may be constant. When pain is constant, it means the arthritis is starting to get worse.
  • Joint stiffness. Starting your morning routine can be difficult when you have OA. Your joints will feel creaky and stiff until you move.
  • Muscle weakness. With arthritis, the muscles surrounding your joints become weak due to lack of movement secondary to pain.
  • Joint swelling. OA only causes a little swelling compared to RA. Swelling is usually seen in weight-bearing joints, such as the knees. Having inflamed joints is one difference between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis that you should notice immediately.
  • Joint deformation. When OA worsens, joints start to deform.
  • Limited joint motion. As arthritis aggravates, it will be difficult to extend or bend your joints.
  • Sleeping problemStiffness and pain may disrupt a person’s sleep.

Additionally, OA of the spinal column can cause joint numbness due to the narrowing of your spinal canal. Narrowing of the canals can put pressure on your spinal nerves or spinal cord, which then causes the symptoms mentioned.

Below is a table that shows the characteristics of Osteoarthritis vs Rheumatoid Arthritis.

Characteristics Osteoarthritis Rheumatoid Arthritis
Progression The progression of OA can be slow over the years. RA may develop rapidly over time.
Joint symptoms Joints are painful and tender to touch. However, swelling is only minimal. Swelling is very visible due to excessive production of synovial fluid.
Joints affected Symptoms often start on the left or right side of your body, then spread on the opposite side of your body. Symptoms start gradually and often begin with a single joint until it also affects the other joints, especially the spine, hips, knees, and thumb. RA affects large and small joints of your body on both sides (symmetrical). For example, both feet, both hands, both wrists, or both elbows.
Morning stiffness duration Stiffness typically lasts for only one hour. Then, return at night or after a physical activity. Stiffness typically lasts for more than an hour.
Whole body affectation General feeling of weakness/fatigue is present for persons diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Only the joints and muscles surrounding the joints are affected with OA.

Diagnosis for OA and RA

diagnosis for rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis

How do people get a diagnosis for rheumatoid arthritis?

A doctor will advise you to take a physical exam, including your history. He may also suggest that you have an X-ray, blood tests, and other necessary tests to give you the correct diagnosis.

How do people get a diagnosis for osteoarthritis?

A doctor will examine what causes your joint pain. He will ask if you have the symptoms mentioned above. Your doctor will most likely suggest that you have an X-ray to see if you have joint damage. To rule out rheumatoid arthritis, your doctor may suggest that you undergo blood tests.

Frequently Asked Questions

Below are frequently asked questions about Osteoarthritis vs. Rheumatoid Arthritis.

There are more than a hundred types of diseases related to arthritis. However, the two most common classifications manifest symptoms related to Osteoarthritis vs Rheumatoid Arthritis. As mentioned, osteoarthritis is more prevalent than rheumatoid arthritis. However, with RA, inflammation is worse compared to OA.

Many nutritional supplements can help relieve stiffness, pain, and other symptoms. According to research, chondroitin, glucosamine, and omega-3 can help lessen arthritic symptoms.

Below are some foods you must avoid if you are suffering from RA:

  • Fatty food, especially fried foods.
  • Refined sugar and carbohydrates
  • Gluten
  • Dairy products
  • Alcohol
  • Salt and MSG

Yes, X-rays can reveal joint damage related to Osteoarthritis vs. Rheumatoid Arthritis.


Whether you are suffering from OA or RA, you must get the right diagnosis to get the right treatment. However, you may acquire both at once. Unfortunately, scientists haven’t found any cure for OA or RA yet. Nevertheless, there are several treatment options available to help address the symptoms.
If you believe you have symptoms of OA or RA, contact your medical doctor. They can refer you to another specialist who can help you control the symptoms related to Osteoarthritis vs Rheumatoid Arthritis.

Moreover, lifestyle changes, exercise, and physical therapy can help manage joint pain. 

Several people with arthritis benefit from home treatments. When pain is severe, you can rest to relieve joint pressure or address fatigue. You can also apply a warm compress to lessen pain temporarily.
If you are used to doing activities that impact your joints, modify them in a way that lessens joint pressure. You can also utilize assistive devices, such as crutches or cane to reduce joint strain. Most importantly, choose the proper footwear. 
People who live a sedentary lifestyle should be more active. Staying active is important to maintain flexibility and muscle strength. However, bear in mind that balance between rest and activity is essential in managing your symptoms.

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