Osteoarthritis vs. Rheumatoid Arthritis: Key Differences

While both are 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 is caused by the breakdown of cartilage that cushions your joints. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease in which your immune system attacks your body's own tissues in the joints.

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 cartilage loss.

Cartilage is the cushioning that sits between the bones that form your joints. When it wears away or deteriorates, it causes your 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 million 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. However, each condition also has several symptoms that are different from the other.

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 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

Osteoarthritis pain tends to start slowly with joint pain and gradually increase in symptoms through the months and years. RA may start with symptoms like fatigue, fever, and weakness. The joint pain may get worse over a few weeks or months.

Some symptoms of RA and OA are similar but present differently. For example, both conditions include morning stiffness. However, with OA, it tends to last for a shorter time than RA.

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 the 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. Common theories point to a genetic predisposition combined with other possible triggers, such as smoking or obesity.

Diagnosis

If you're experiencing any arthritis symptoms, make an appointment with your healthcare provider. They can help you determine whether they're signs of osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis.

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 to reduce immune system activity and inflammation. 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)

For both conditions, steroid injections may help with inflammation and pain in your joints.

Managing weight may also help with reducing strain on your joints in both RA and OA. Staying at a healthy weight can also help reduce inflammation in autoimmune diseases such as RA.

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

Summary

OA and RA may have similar symptoms, but they are two very different conditions. Osteoarthritis is caused by the wearing down of cartilage in the joints. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks tissues in the joints.

Symptoms can be similar, but there are differences between RA and OA. While OA tends to start with joint pain, RA may start with other symptoms like fatigue and fever.

Treatment for OA tends to focus on pain relief. Treatment for RA includes several different medications to treat this autoimmune disease.

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 healthcare provider if you have any symptoms.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Which is worse—rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis?

    Rheumatoid arthritis is thought to be more disabling because of the severe inflammation, joint damage, and deformity it can cause. However, advances in treatment have helped patients to reduce that damage, lessen pain, and improve quality of life.

  • Can osteoarthritis be mistaken for rheumatoid arthritis?

    It's possible, but there are some key differences to distinguish them. Osteoarthritis develops gradually, while rheumatoid arthritis can worsen over several weeks or months. They both may affect the hands, but typically only osteoarthritis affects the joint near the tip of the finger.

    The symptoms may seem similar, but your healthcare provider can help you determine which condition you have.

  • Can an X-ray show the difference between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis?

    It might, depending on how far the conditions have progressed. For rheumatoid arthritis, an X-ray may show the progression of bone damage. With osteoarthritis, an X-ray may show narrowing of joint space because of the loss of cartilage.

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15 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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