ArthritisOsteoarthritis or Rheumatoid Arthritis? How To Tell the Difference

Osteoarthritis or Rheumatoid Arthritis? How To Tell the Difference

If you’ve recently found that opening jars is more difficult due to pain in your hands, or if flights of stairs have suddenly become a challenge due to stiffness in your knees, it’s safe to assume you’ve probably considered arthritis as a likely culprit. But, what type of arthritis is it: osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis? These two conditions are the most common form of arthritis and can cause very similar aches and pains. However, there are a few key differences between them. Let’s take a closer look at those differences below.

Osteoarthritis or Rheumatoid Arthritis? Understanding the Two

Osteoarthritis or Rheumatoid Arthritis? Understanding the TwoRheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis are two very different kinds of arthritis, however, they share many common characteristics that make them difficult to tell apart. The two conditions require very different treatments, which means that getting the right diagnosis is extremely important.

With that said, it’s not always easy to tell which condition you may be living with. Is it osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis? To help you better understand which ailment you may have, here’s everything you need to know about these two types of arthritis. Let’s first start by understanding each condition and what causes them.


If you’re wondering whether you’re living with osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis it’s far more likely that you have osteoarthritis. This is because osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis by a large margin. Currently, it’s estimated that nearly 32.5 million people in the United States are living with osteoarthritis. When you compare this with the 1.3 million people who are affected by rheumatoid arthritis, it’s easy to see why osteoarthritis may be a more likely cause of your aches and pains.

With that being said, it’s not wise to base your self-diagnosis on statistics. While osteoarthritis may be much more common than rheumatoid arthritis, that doesn’t mean your chances of having it drop to zero. What condition you have depends on a multitude of factors, including your age, lifestyle, and genetics, all of which can contribute to your risk of developing either osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis.

Osteoarthritis occurs when cartilage (tissue in your joints that cushions your bones) wears away. When this happens, the cartilage can wear so thin that your bones rub against each other, causing severe pain. This pain typically develops gradually over time, usually over a period of months or years.

Most people over the age of 60 have osteoarthritis to some degree, but its severity varies. Younger people, such as those in their 20s or 30s, can get osteoarthritis too, but this is very uncommon. In people over age 50, more women than men have osteoarthritis.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Unlike osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory condition in which your immune system attacks the tissues in your joints. Rheumatoid arthritis causes pain and stiffness in joints that typically worsen over time. For some people with rheumatoid arthritis, cold or flu-like symptoms often develop first before any joint pain is present.

Rheumatoid arthritis commonly affects joints in the hands, wrists, and knees. In a joint with RA, the lining becomes inflamed, causing damage to joint tissue. This tissue damage can cause long-lasting or chronic pain, unsteadiness (lack of balance), and deformity (misshapenness).

RA can also affect other tissues throughout the body and cause problems in organs such as the lungs, heart, and eyes.

What’s the Difference Between Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis?

One of the more challenging aspects of determining whether your joint pain is osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis is the symptoms. The two conditions not only share many of the same symptoms but are often found in the same types of people as well. Both conditions are more common in older women and are thought to be linked to other health conditions like obesity or joint deterioration.

While the two conditions share similar symptoms, there are a few that are unique to each. Below, we’ll take a closer look at the symptoms of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, and how you can tell them apart.

Symptoms of Osteoarthritis

One of the most obvious differences between the two conditions is their onset. Osteoarthritis is often referred to as wear and tear arthritis. This is because the condition is typically the result of years of excessive stress or overuse. Due to this, osteoarthritis will typically occur first in larger, more frequently used joints such as the hips, knees, and spine, all of which are weight-bearing joints.

While it can smaller joints, osteoarthritis usually does not affect other joints unless previous injury, excessive stress, or an underlying disorder of cartilage is involved.

Other symptoms of osteoarthritis include:

  • Joint pain
  • Stiffness in the joints
  • Loss of flexibility and reduced range of motion
  • Tenderness or discomfort when touching the affected joint
  • Bone spurs, extra bits of bone, forming around the affected joint

Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Unlike osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis tends to cause pain and discomfort in the small joints in your hands and feet. This pain is often accompanied by morning stiffness that lasts for an hour or more, which really sets it apart from osteoarthritis.

Other signs of rheumatoid arthritis include:

  • Fatigue
  • Low fevers
  • Low appetite
  • Lumps called rheumatoid nodules that grow under your skin, although these are not common

People with rheumatoid arthritis are also more likely to develop osteoarthritis-related joint pain, which can make diagnosing each more difficult.

How Are Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis Treated?

How Are Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis Treated?There’s no cure for either osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis, and there’s no way to reverse the joint damage caused by either. While treatment for both conditions varies, the goal is the same: to reduce pain and help the joint work better. However, with rheumatoid arthritis, the main goal of treatment is to slow or stop disease activity, or in other words, to make your body stop attacking itself.

Let’s next look at different treatment methods for osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Treating Osteoarthritis

Treatment for osteoarthritis usually involves a combination of medications and physical therapy. Depending on your condition, symptoms, and lifestyle, this combination may look different, or your doctor may decide that you only need one of the two. This is because treatment is centered upon symptom management. The type of treatment that will help you the most will largely depend on the severity of your symptoms and their location.

For some people, over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen, lifestyle changes, or home remedies are enough to help relieve symptoms. For others, more specialized treatment may be needed.

Common medications prescribed for osteoarthritis include:

  • Topical pain relievers: These may include patches or rub-on creams or gels that reduce pain.
  • Cymbalta: The antidepressant drug duloxetine (Cymbalta) is a commonly prescribed medication for osteoarthritis that has been approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of musculoskeletal pain.
  • Corticosteroids: These prescription medications are available in oral form, and may also be given by injection directly into a joint.

Should your doctor find that medication alone isn’t helping, they may recommend you undergo therapy to help strengthen your joints. One of the most common therapies for osteoarthritis is physical therapy. During physical therapy, a physical therapist can show you exercises to strengthen the muscles around your joint, increase your flexibility and reduce pain. Regular exercise done on your own, such as walking or swimming, can also be effective.

Treating Rheumatoid Arthritis

Treatment for rheumatoid arthritis is very different than treatment for osteoarthritis. Like osteoarthritis, there is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, however, where treatment differs is the goal. For rheumatoid arthritis, while treatment is aimed at managing symptoms, the overall goal is to stop your body from attacking itself. This can help slow the progression of the disease, and, in turn, treat your symptoms.

There are several different treatment options your doctor may recommend to help with rheumatoid arthritis. The first, and most common, are medications. Common medications prescribed for rheumatoid arthritis include:

  • Steroids: Corticosteroid medications, such as prednisone, reduce inflammation and pain and slow joint damage.
  • Conventional DMARDs: Short for disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs, DMARDs are a group of medications commonly used in people with rheumatoid arthritis. These drugs can slow the progression of rheumatoid arthritis and save the joints and other tissues from permanent damage.
  • Biologic agents: Also known as biologic response modifiers, these medications are a newer class of DMARDs that can slow or stop damaging inflammation.

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  1. This is helpful but I fear it may be an oversimplification. I have a background of being a clinical scientist and worked for many years in nuclear medicine and learned from the get-go that it was important to get an accurate history from the patient to work out what is going on. When I became ill with arthritis and talked to the rheumatologists for the first time as a patient I was taken aback when I reported how my arthritis switched on over about a week (ten days after volunteering for an experimental Pneumococcal vaccine). I was told I was wrong and had been suffering from arthritis for years as I was suffering from Osteo Arthritis! I am fed up with junior doctors telling me the history I and my wife (a midwife with years of experience) report is wrong. From my point of view, I have an Arthritis that flares up whenever my immunity is working overtime and clearly has other autoimmune aspects even if I don’t have an antibody signature consistent with classical Rheumatoid Arthritis. We are very familiar with Rheumatoid Arthritis – my father-in-law died from the treatments of it – and I am sure I don’t have simple Rheumatoid Arthritis but what I do have mimics it in a number of ways. I am sure there are many more than two types of arthritis.


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