The Difference Between Osteoarthritis And Rheumatoid Arthritis

Although both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are two of the most common musculoskeletal conditions causing painful joints and medical complications, the conditions are not identical. We explain the differences between these two diseases.

Arthritis is a term that can apply to a number of conditions. Two of the most common, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are often confused. They share some similar characteristics, but have different symptoms and require different treatments. Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. By comparison, rheumatoid arthritis strikes a tenth of the number of patients affected by osteoarthritis. The following guidelines can help you to understand the differences between these two diseases:

  • The causes are different. Although family history is a risk factor for both diseases, osteoarthritis is a degenerative condition. It develops over time due to excessive wear on the cartilage between the joints. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease; it is caused by a patient’s own immune system attacking the body, and can strike any joint—and some other parts of the body.
  • The ages of affected patients are different. As a degenerative disease, osteoarthritis tends to strike older patients. Their disease is the result of the wear and tear put on joints over time, although younger patients overusing their joints through repetitive motions are also at risk. Rheumatoid arthritis has no age limitations. It can affect anyone at any age, though it is more common and often more aggressive in women.
  • The diseases affect the body in different ways. Osteoarthritis is caused by the overuse of a joint. Symptoms often begin gradually on one side of the body, and are often limited to one set of joints. Rheumatoid arthritis tends to affect large and small joints on both sides of the body simultaneously, and may affect other organs of the body as well.
  • The timing of disease progression is different. Osteoarthritis develops slowly over time as people age and wear down their joints. Rheumatoid arthritis can affect patients much more quickly, advancing into a disabling condition in a few weeks or months.
  • The medical treatments are different. Osteoarthritis treatment focuses on pain relief and restoring function to the affected joint. Treatments include anti-inflammatory painkillers, steroid injections, and physical therapy. The primary treatment for rheumatoid arthritis is medication to relieve pain. Surgery is a last-resort treatment option for both types of arthritis.


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  • Andrew Thomas MD

    Andrew Thomas, M.D.

    “I am continually amazed by the mixture of strength, elegance, and humanity that come together in my patients’ hands and feel fortunate to be able to play a role in helping them when they encounter disease or injury as they seek
    to return to strength and function.”

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