Osteoarthritis vs. Rheumatoid Arthritis

If you are like many, you have woken up in the morning with stiff or sore joints. There could be many causes attributed to these symptoms, but two of the most likely are osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). As many as 27 million Americans a year have reported they suffer from some type of muscle stiffness or joint pain due to OA and another 1.3 million because of RA.

What’s the Difference?

The most common form of arthritis today is osteoarthritis. Only about one-tenth as many people are affected by rheumatoid arthritis as compared to osteoarthritis. The main difference between the two lies in the symptoms, the cause behind them, and the way they affect the body. OA is a degenerative disease, while RA is a systematic autoimmune disorder.


Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease that is caused by the wear and tear of joints over time. The breakdown of the cartilage causes the bones wear away, which is the root of the joint pain. Osteoarthritis tends to begin later in life. Its risk factors are more present in women, those who are overweight, suffer from diabetes or gout, or those who have experienced injuries to the joints, or have joint deformities. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease where the immune system to attacks itself, forcing the joints in your body to have an excess of fluid in them. Rheumatoid arthritis may begin at any age and usually progresses rather quickly, in the span of just a few weeks to months. It is known to be more common amongst women and often runs in the family.


There are many similarities in the symptoms between both osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Both are known to cause joint pain and stiffness, swelling, limited range of motion, and both OA and RA sufferers notice an increase in morning stiffness in the affected joints, including hands, fingers, and elbows. Though RA and OA share many of the same symptoms, there are some important differences between the two.

OA Symptoms

OA symptoms are not systematic; however, those who suffer from it have experienced side effects from it that are similar but different to systematic diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis. This includes bone spurs or other bone abnormalities, which are different types of lumps than rheumatoid nodules. OA can affect any joint in your body, but it most frequently is found in the hips, knees, hands, neck, and lower back.  The symptoms associated with OA are:

  • Pain
  • Stiffness
  • Changes in joint appearance
  • Swelling in the joints and surrounding areas
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Noisy joints

RA Symptoms

RA is in a class of diseases that can affect the entire body. Those who experience symptoms associated with RA may feel them in not only the joints, but the lungs, eyes, and even the heart. Some of the most common symptoms of RA are:

  • Pain
  • Stiffness
  • Frequent fatigue
  • Frequent illness
  • Pain in the joints on both sides of the body (symmetrical)
  • Fever
  • Muscle aches
  • Loss of appetite or weight loss
  • Formation of rheumatoid nodules around the joints


OA and RA share many similar symptoms, but the effect they can have on those who suffer can vary greatly. Both can get worse over time if symptoms are not treated, but OA is known to be easier to manage because it tends to affect fewer joints and is not systematic like RA. RA is also harder to predict than OA. It is important to discuss symptoms with your doctor so a proper diagnosis can be made. It is possible to lead a healthy lifestyle once effective treatment is put into practice.


Because of the similarities between the two, it’s best to have a physician help you determine the correct form of treatment. OA is diagnosed by a physical examination and the use of imaging tests such as an X-ray or an MRI, which will show the deteriorating joints. Blood work can not confirm the presence of OA, but it can rule out other possibilities such as RA. To diagnose RA, a physical examination must be performed, followed by blood tests that will reveal if there is a presence of antibodies that are known causes of RA. An X-ray may also be required to confirm the signs of joint damage or inflammation.


There are many different types of treatment options available for OA and RA. While both are chronic conditions and neither has a cure, they can often be treated with the use of a few different medications. Steroid based drugs are injected directly into the affected joints when immediate relief from inflammation is necessary and is used on RA as well as OA. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)  are also used for both and help to reduce the pain, stiffness, and lack of range of motion, which affects multiple joints. For patients suffering from RA, doctors will often prescribe disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) in addition to NSAIDs. The use of DMARDs is to suppress the immune system, which helps reduce its ability to cause damage to joint tissues. RA can be very unpredictable and, in some cases, can lead to more severe complications down the line, such as respiratory or cardiovascular disease. Physical therapy is also used to help treat the symptoms of both types of arthritis. This allows patients to regain flexibility in the joints as well as improve mobility for those who suffer. Medical professionals recommend maintaining healthy body weight, exercise, and healthy habits to treat both types of arthritis.

It is essential to speak with a doctor or medical professional if you experience any of the above symptoms, especially before starting any form of treatment. Once diagnosed, many have found positive results and success in achieving remission.