Osteoarthritis vs. Rheumatoid Arthritis

While both types of arthritis, there are notable differences

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Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common type of arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is recognized as the most disabling type of arthritis. While they both fall under the "arthritis" umbrella and share certain similarities, these diseases have significant differences.

Osteoarthritis vs. Rheumatoid Arthritis
Verywell / Alexandra Gordon

OA and RA: Key Comparisons

More than 30 million people in the United States are believed to have osteoarthritis, which is a degenerative joint disease. It's often called wear-and-tear arthritis and is caused by the breakdown of joint cartilage—cushioning that sits between the bones that form your joints.

Cartilage loss can cause bones to rub together, which is extremely painful. Osteoarthritis typically begins in a single joint and is more common after age 65.

Rheumatoid arthritis is much less common, with an estimated 1.5 people in the U.S. diagnosed with it. RA is a chronic, inflammatory, autoimmune disease that primarily targets the lining of the joint (synovium), but it can also affect the organs throughout your body. Multiple joints are usually involved, as well.

RA disease onset is most common in people between 30 and 60. Women are two to three times more likely than men to have the disease, and men tend to get it later in life.

OA vs. RA: At a Glance
  Osteoarthritis Rheumatoid Arthritis
Prevalence 30 million 1.5 million
Classification Degenerative Autoimmune
Effect Cartilage loss Joint lining damage
Early Presentation Single joint Multiple joints
Age of Onset Over 65 30-60
Gender Difference None More common in women

Symptoms of OA and RA

OA and RA have some symptoms in common, but each condition also has several symptoms that aren't unique.

Common symptoms of osteoarthritis include:

  • Pain in the affected joint after repetitive use or activity
  • Morning stiffness that lasts a half hour or less
  • Joint pain that is often worse later in the day
  • Swelling, warming, and stiffening of the affected joint after prolonged inactivity
  • Bone spurs, bony enlargements (Heberden's nodes and Bouchard's nodes in the hands), and limited range of motion

Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms include:

  • Joint pain
  • Joint swelling or effusion
  • Joint stiffness
  • Redness and/or warmth near the joint
  • Restricted range of motion
  • Morning stiffness lasting more than an hour
  • Involvement of the small joints of the hands and feet
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Rheumatoid nodules
  • Symmetrical joint involvement (e.g., both knees, not just one)
  • Lung, kidney, or cardiac involvement

Causes

OA and RA have different causes, although the theories behind both are still under scientific investigation.

OA was long thought to solely be caused by normal wear-and-tear or the effects of aging. However, experts now know that other factors can contribute to your risk of developing OA, including:

  • Joint injury
  • Repetitive joint use or stress
  • Being overweight
  • A family history of osteoarthritis

In addition, it's been discovered that the water content of cartilage initially increases with osteoarthritis while protein composition of cartilage steadily degenerates. This is believed to be due to an imbalance in your body's ability to repair cartilage as it deteriorates. Thus far, the cause of this imbalance is unknown.

The cause of RA is less understood. Researchers have worked for years to find the cause of the abnormal autoimmune response associated with the disease but have yet to find a single clear cause has been found. Common theories point to a genetic predisposition combined with other possible triggers, such as smoking or obesity.

Diagnosis

The diagnostic processes for OA and RA have a fair amount of overlap. Test results, a physical examination, and your medical history are all taken together to determine a diagnosis.

  • X-rays of affected joints can show joint damage associated with both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Arthrocentesis, which involves removal and analysis of joint fluid, can evaluate for either condition, with the results differentiating which type of arthritis you have.
  • Blood tests cannot definitively diagnose osteoarthritis, but they may be used to rule out other conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis.

Laboratory tests that are commonly ordered to help diagnose (or rule out) rheumatoid arthritis, as well as other inflammatory or autoimmune diseases, include:

A proper diagnosis is essential to finding the right treatments.

Treatments

OA and RA are treated very differently.

Treatment options for osteoarthritis focus on pain relief and restoring function to the affected joint. Common medications for reducing pain and inflammation include:

Other treatment options are:

The primary treatment for rheumatoid arthritis is medication. Five categories of drugs commonly used to treat rheumatoid arthritis are:

  • Biologics, such as Enbrel (etanercept), Remicade (infliximab), Humira (adalimumab), Rituxan (rituximab), and Orencia (abatacept)
  • Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs), such as methotrexate
  • Corticosteroids, such as prednisone and hydrocortisone
  • NSAIDs, such as Celebrex (celecoxib) and naproxen
  • Analgesics (painkillers)

Steroid injections and/or some alternative and complementary treatments may be used in addition to medication.

For serious cases of either condition, the last-resort treatment option is surgery. This includes arthroscopy, arthrodesis (fusion), and arthroplasty (joint replacement).

A Word From Verywell

Whether you have osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis, it's important to know that treatments have come a long way. It is also possible to have both OA and RA, which requires treating both at the same time.

The first step on the road to feeling better is getting a proper diagnosis, so speak to your doctor if you have any symptoms.

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