Difference between Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis

There are several different types of arthritis. Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are two of the most common forms. Although the symptoms of these two types of arthritis can be similar, it is very important to distinguish them in order to determine the appropriate treatment.

Osteoarthritis is a type of arthritis commonly known as “wear and tear” arthritis. This disease develops as the cartilage breaks down and the joints begin to rub against each other. When cartilage (the flexible tissue that connects joints) breaks down, the joints no longer have the padding they need to move and spread properly. This lack of support causes the synovium (the membrane that surrounds the joint) to swell.

As the cartilage continues to wear down, the bones eventually rub against each other, which can cause joint pain, stiffness, and swelling. Although osteoarthritis can affect any joint, it often affects the joints in the hands, neck, knees, and hips.


Rheumatoid arthritis, another common type of arthritis, is an autoimmune disease that affects the joints of the hands, elbows, knees, ankles, wrists, and feet. This form of arthritis can also damage organs, as well as the respiratory system and the cardiovascular system, which is why this disease is considered a “systemic” disease.

Rheumatoid arthritis is caused by the immune system’s attack on the synovium. The immune system mistakes the synovium for a foreign invader and attacks it like an infection or virus. The cause of this erroneous autoimmune attack is unknown.

There are several types of rheumatoid arthritis, such as seronegative rheumatoid arthritis, as well as other common types of arthritis such as psoriatic arthritis.


The difference between osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is in the way these diseases damage the body. While OA is a degenerative disease caused by a physical breakdown of cartilage and eventually bone, RA is an autoimmune disease caused by a reaction in the immune system.


Systemic vs. Degenerative

Because RA is a systemic disease, it can attack multiple joints and areas of the body at the same time. A systemic disease is one that affects an entire body system at once, instead of affecting a single organ or area of ​​the body.

When RA is present, a person’s immune system perceives their joints, the synovial tissues that surround their joints, and other healthy organs as viruses or foreign invaders that need to be expelled from the body. In response to these invaders, the body’s white blood cells will rush to the joint or organ site and create antibodies to destroy the perceived threat.

OA, on the other hand, is a degenerative disease and usually originates from a single joint. Unlike RA, this degenerative disease is not inflammatory; it deteriorates (or degenerates) the connective cartilage between the joints and, finally, deteriorates the bones. OA is sometimes called “wear and tear” arthritis because it is the result of natural aging and years of wear and tear on the joints.

RA (a systemic disease) is caused by an autoimmune response and OA (a degenerative disease) is caused by years of wear and tear.


Because osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are caused by different factors, they cause different symptoms.

A person who has rheumatoid arthritis may experience fatigue, malaise, and depression, preceding other symptoms by weeks or months. These are common symptoms of systemic diseases, as critical body systems, such as the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, are under attack. These systems have key responsibilities in the body, and any damage to these systems can derail neurological, physiological, and physical functions.

These are other symptoms of RA:

  1. Slight fever
  2. Morning stiffness of the joints
  3. Joint swelling
  4. Pain in the joints and around the body
  5. Redness and warmth in the joints
  6. Weightloss
  7. Muscle and joint weakness

Osteoarthritis manifests itself differently throughout the body. Because this disease attacks the cartilage between the joints and not the body systems (like RA), symptoms are usually felt around the joints. Severe joint pain, stiffness, and swelling are common, along with the following symptoms:

  1. Pain around the affected joint
  2. Weight-bearing joints “lock” or “give way”
  3. Morning stiffness
  4. Increased joint pain throughout the day
  5. Muscle weakness around the arthritic joint
  6. Deformed or “bony” joints
  7. Cracking and popping of the joints


It is important that we determine the type of arthritis a patient has in order to develop an effective treatment plan.

How is osteoarthritis diagnosed

Osteoarthritis is usually diagnosed by a series of tests, along with a physical exam and an evaluation of your medical history.

Here are some of the common tests used to diagnose OA:

  1. Ultrasound to evaluate the ligaments and tendons around the affected joint
  2. Synovial fluid analysis to determine if there is degeneration
  3. Closed synovial biopsy to remove a piece of synovial tissue and assess its condition
  4. Arthroscopic examination of the joints through a small camera
  5. Arthrocentesis exam to remove joint fluid and assess its condition

How Rheumatoid Arthritis Is Diagnosed

Rheumatoid arthritis is usually diagnosed by a series of tests, including physical exams, blood tests, and X-rays.

Here are some of the common tests used to diagnose RA:

  1. Citrullinated anti-cyclic peptide (anti-CCP) test to identify autoantibodies, called anti-CCP
  2. C-reactive protein (CRP) test to identify C-reactive proteins that are produced in response to inflammation
  3. Rheumatoid factor (RF) test to measure levels of RF, an antibody that is usually present when RA is present
  4. Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) test to identify elevated levels that are indicative of inflammation
  5. MRI and ultrasound tests to evaluate the joints
  6. X-rays to identify any joint damage


How Osteoarthritis Is Treated:

Unfortunately, osteoarthritis cannot be reversed or treated. We offer various treatments and pain relievers to help OA patients manage unpleasant symptoms.

  1. Intra-articular injections: Injections of corticosteroids, hyaluronic acid, BOTOX®, or platelet-rich plasma (PRP) into the joints can help relieve joint pain. These injections can provide the missing “cushion” or padding that cartilage once provided before it degenerated.
  2. Physical therapy: Because OA weakens joints and muscles, physical therapy can help strengthen affected joints. Similarly, pain management classes can help patients minimize OA symptoms.
  3. Pain Relief Medications: Several medications can be taken to ease OA symptoms, relieve pain and discomfort, and reduce swelling. These medications include Tylenol® and NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs).

How rheumatoid arthritis is treated:

Unfortunately, there is also no treatment to reverse rheumatoid arthritis. Various medications can be given along with therapy to help patients manage RA symptoms.

  1. Disease-modifying drugs: Several drugs, known as DMARDs (disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs), can be taken to slow the progression of RA or stop it altogether. These treatments can prevent the joints from further damage.
  2. Pain Relief Medications: Medications, such as NSAIDs and corticosteroids, can help reduce swelling and inflammation and relieve pain caused by RA. These medications can also help improve physical function.
  3. Physical therapy: Physical therapy sessions can help patients improve joint and muscle function. These sessions can also introduce patients to new ways of functioning or performing tasks to minimize joint pain

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