The Difference Between Rheumatoid Arthritis and Osteoarthritis

Symptoms | Causes | Treatment

The Difference between Rheumatoid Arthritis and OsteoarthritisThere’s a common misperception that arthritis is arthritis—there’s only one kind. To the contrary, there are over 100 kinds of arthritis and related medical conditions, with the two most common being osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. While all arthritic conditions have similarities, there are differences that have an impact on how they are diagnosed, as well as the best methods for treatment.

What Is Arthritis?

Arthritis is a medical term used to describe a condition that generally involves tenderness and/or swelling in your joints. With all types of arthritis, you can expect to experience stiffness and joint discomfort, which will become more pronounced as you get older.

What Is Osteoarthritis?

The most common type of arthritis, osteoarthritis (OA) is damage to the cartilage in a joint, usually caused by wear and tear over a period of years. Your joints all contain some degree of cartilage, a coating on the end of the bones that serves as a cushion and minimizes friction between bones when you use a joint. With age and/or excessive use, the cartilage can break down or wear thin, resulting in direct contact between bone and bone. That grinding typically causes both pain and loss of flexibility and range of motion. Without sufficient cartilage, your joints can become swollen and/or inflamed.

What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an auto-immune condition caused when your body’s natural immune system attacks the membrane that covers the bones at a joint. Deterioration of the cartilage leads to inflammation and swelling.

The Symptoms

Though the symptoms of OA and RA are similar—joint pain, stiffness, swelling, and restricted mobility—there are differences:

  • RA tends to develop and worsen more quickly
  • Stiffness and discomfort related to RA tends to be more severe and last longer
  • OA is more commonly found in your knees or the joints of your thumb and small finger, whereas RA can attack almost any joint in your body
  • OA usually affects only one side of your body, whereas RA tends to impact both sides
  • OA is typically more localized; RA tends to be systemic


Because many symptoms are similar, diagnosis can be a challenge. Blood tests can be used to establish or rule out RA.


Because both conditions involve inflammation, the use of NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) is recommended for both as a way to minimize discomfort and improve flexibility and range of motion. There are also pharmaceutical products specifically applicable to RA, which can suppress the immune system and prevent the destruction of tissue and cartilage.


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