Rheumatoid Arthritis vs. Osteoarthritis: What’s the Difference?

Rheumatoid Arthritis vs. Osteoarthritis: What’s the Difference?

In the United States, approximately 1 out of every 6 adults has arthritis. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists the disease as one of the leading causes of work disability, costing Americans over $300 billion in lost wages every year. Osteoarthritis, a disease that affects the joint tissue between the bones, affects 32.5 million people. Rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disorder, affects 1.5 million people and is twice as common in women as men. Although both conditions have similar symptoms and can be quite painful, there is a distinct difference between the two.

What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an inflammatory autoimmune disorder that causes the immune system to attack healthy cells by mistake. Affected joints, usually in several parts of the body, become swollen and painful. Although rheumatoid arthritis is common in the knees, hands and wrists, it can affect any organ, including the eyes, heart and lungs. It is a chronic disorder that can lead to pain, deformities and problems with balance.  Although rheumatoid arthritis can start at a young age, it most often begins in adults over 60.

Symptoms of Rheumatoid arthritis include:

  • Fever
  • Stiffness lasting over 30 minutes after sitting or sleeping
  • Low hemoglobin (anemia)
  • Firm nodules under the skin, especially in the ankles, hands or elbows
  • Joint pain on both sides of the body

Common risk factors for developing rheumatoid arthritis include:

  • Gender (more common in females)
  • Genetic susceptibility
  • Early exposure to environmental toxins, trauma, etc.
  • Excess weight
  • History of smoking

What Is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis (OA) occurs when the cartilage, a slippery material that keeps bones from rubbing together, breaks down and causes friction in the joint. Eventually, the condition worsens, causing loss of movement, swelling, inflammation and joint pain. Usually seen in older people, it most often affects the spine, hips, knees, toes and fingers.

Symptoms of osteoarthritis include:

  • Joint pain
  • Stiffness within the joint
  • Reduced flexibility and range of motion
  • Discomfort and/or tenderness when you apply pressure to the affected area
  • Bone spurs
  • Inflammation
  • Cracking, clicking or grating feeling when you move your joints

There are several risk factors for developing osteoarthritis. They include:

  • Wear and tear or joint injury
  • Joint deformity or traumatic injury
  • Age (risk increases with age)
  • Gender (more common in women over 50)
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Obesity
  • Comorbid conditions, such as gout or diabetes

Rheumatoid Arthritis vs. Osteoarthritis: Where Is My Joint Pain Coming From?

Both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis cause swelling and joint pain, but they have distinct differences.

Osteoarthritis results from overuse or injury, and first occurs in a single joint. Your doctor will look for symptoms like pain, stiffness and swelling. The joint may lack flexibility and make a grinding or cracking noise with movement.

Rheumatoid Arthritis can be hard to diagnose in its early stages because its symptoms are similar to other disorders. Unlike Osteoarthritis, it has a symmetrical presentation, occurring in joints on both sides of the body. Doctors look for symptoms like a low-grade fever, fatigue, poor appetite, and lumps beneath the skin.

If you have joint pain or other symptoms of arthritis, a physician can provide a proper diagnosis. Your doctor will consider the location of the affected joints and how the pain started. Then, a physical exam, blood tests and imaging will be done to find the origin of the problem.

How Is Rheumatoid Arthritis Treated?

There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but early treatment relieves many of the symptoms and helps to prevent future damage to joints and bones. Finding the right medication may require trial and error, and most people use a combination of various medicines over the years.

Treatment usually begins with a DMARD (disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drug), a medication that treats symptoms and slows down progression of joint damage. Sometimes, NSAIDS (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) or low doses of corticosteroids are added to reduce pain and swelling. For more serious symptoms, biologics and biosimilars (a newer generation of DMARDs) are prescribed to block chemical signals from the immune system, reducing damage and inflammation.

Most people with rheumatoid arthritis don’t need surgery, however, in some cases, minimally invasive procedures are used to improve function and reduce pain.

How Is Osteoarthritis Treated?

Osteoarthritis also can’t be cured, but the symptoms can be treated with a variety of therapies such as:

  • Physical therapy with an emphasis on activities to strengthen muscles
  • Occupational therapy
  • Exercise, such as walking, swimming or resistance training
  • Over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers, such as acetaminophen
  • Supplements, such as glucosamine chondroitin
  • Weight loss to reduce pressure on joints
  • Minimally invasive procedures
  • Orthopedic devices, such as crutches, braces and canes
  • Steroid (anti-inflammatory) or hyaluronic acid (lubricant) injections in affected joints

Which Self-Care Practices Help Arthritis?

No matter what kind of arthritis you have, you need good medical care. Lifestyle also plays an important role in overall well-being. Talk to your doctor about the best ways to include practices like these:

  • Physical activity (appropriate for your condition)
  • Health diet
  • Weight control to relieve stress on joints
  • Topical creams, gels and patches
  • Dietary supplements, such as turmeric and fish oil
  • Good mental health habits
  • Stress control
  • Complementary therapies, such as chiropractic, massage, meditation or yoga

The CDC estimates that 78 million adults in the U.S. will be diagnosed with arthritis by 2040. An estimated 43% (over 33.5 million) will have limitations caused by the disorder. That’s why it’s important to see your doctor for early diagnosis and treatment. Learning how to cope with arthritis is crucial for an active life.

Oasis Orthopedic & Spine Can Help

Rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis can greatly impact your quality of life. If you’re experiencing pain and discomfort, it’s time to take the first step by getting a diagnosis and personalized treatment. Oasis Orthopedic & Spine can help you get your life back on track and get rid of pain. Contact our team today.



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