«
»

Top

Rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis: How are they similar and different?

Published 7 Mar 2022 • By Courtney Johnson

There are more than 100 types of arthritis and related joint conditions. Two that you may have heard about the most are rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and osteoarthritis (OA). 

What are these two joint diseases? How are they similar? And how are they different? 

We explain it all below! 

Rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis: How are they similar and different?

What is arthritis? What are rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis?

Arthritis is a very common, but poorly understood condition. While many of us may refer to “arthritis” meaning one condition, it is in fact not a single disease. Arthritis is an umbrella term for more than 100 different diseases affecting the joints, including rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and osteoarthritis (OA)

Both conditions affect the joints but have different causes and symptoms. 

Rheumatoid arthritis is a systemic autoimmune disorder where the immune system overreacts against the body and attacks the lining of the joints, called the synovium. This immune attack causes the synovium to become inflamed, producing fluid which builds up in the joints, causing pain, inflammation, stiffness, and decreased flexibility of the joints. 

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative disorder involving the wear and tear of the cartilage, which gradually breaks down and causes bones to rub together. This rubbing between the bones exposes small nerves, causing pain. Though the immune system is not involved in OA, mild inflammation still does occur. 

editor_meta_bo_img_ebbddabde77202907b559a307886bdbb.png

OA is the most common type of arthritis, with more than 8.5 million people in the UK affected, while around 400,000 people are living with RA.

How are rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis similar and different? 

Rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis share many of the same core symptoms, which include: 

  • Joint pain and stiffness 
  • Restricted mobility in affected joints 
  • Swelling, which is more severe in RA 
  • More intense symptoms in the morning 

Rheumatoid arthritis characteristics 

Rheumatoid arthritis is a systemic condition, which means it can impact the entire body – the lungs, the heart, the skin – and not just the joints. Early symptoms of RA can include: 

  • Intense fatigue 
  • Muscle ache 
  • Low-grade fever, particularly in children 

RA typically develops first in the smaller joints, such as the hands and finger joints. With time, RA may progress into the larger joints, like the knees, ankles, or shoulders. Additionally, RA is a symmetrical condition, meaning that symptoms are experienced on both sides of the body simultaneously

Patients with advanced RA may observe firm lumps or masses under the skin near the joints. These masses are called rheumatoid nodules and can cause tenderness and discomfort. 

Osteoarthritis characteristics 

Because of its degenerative nature, OA symptoms are limited to the joints, so systemic symptoms are unlikely. 

Like RA, osteoarthritis is common in the fingers and hands. It also frequently affects the knees, hips, and spine. OA is a less symmetrical disease. A patient may experience pain in both knees, for example, but one joint or one side may be worse. 

Patients may develop masses under the skin near the joints, but these are different than rheumatoid nodules. When they occur in the finger joints closest to the fingertips, they are called Heberden’s nodes, and when they are in the middle joints, they are called Bouchard’s nodes. These bony swellings commonly occur as Heberden's nodes and can cause pain and deformation of the fingers

People with OA are also more likely to develop bone spurs (osteophytes), which are bony projections that develop where bones meet – in the joints.

Both forms of arthritis occur more commonly in women than in men and are more frequent in older adults, though RA can develop at any age

RA also has a hereditary factor – a person has a higher chance of developing it if a parent, sibling, or child has it. 

The likelihood of developing OA increases if you: 

  • Are overweight or obese 
  • Have diabetes 
  • Have gout 
  • Have joint deformities 
  • Have experienced a traumatic joint injury 

What are the treatment approaches for rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis? 

RA and OA are two chronic illnesses, meaning that they do not go away. There is no cure for either disease, but treatments can help patients to manage symptoms, slow disease progression, and improve quality of life. 

In both conditions, the treatment objectives are to: 

  • Reduce pain 
  • Improve joint mobility and function 
  • Limit damage to the joints 

Treatment strategy, however, will differ depending on whether the patient has RA or OA. 

Common treatment regimens include medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to reduce inflammation, ease pain and stiffness, and improve range of motion

Doctors may also use steroid-based medicines to treat inflammation. These may be injected directly into the joint to treat inflammation quickly and at the source during a flare-up. 

For RA, the American College of Rheumatology recommends the use of disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), in combination with NSAIDs or steroids and biologics. DMARDs are designed to block the inflammatory process by suppressing the immune system, therefore reducing damage to tissues and joints. 

For OA, the College recommends topical and oral NSAIDs, steroid injections, in addition to self-management approaches like diet, exercise, and medical devices or aids. 

Physical therapy can be beneficial in both RA and OA, as it helps to improve mobility and maintain joint flexibility. 

Finally, a number of lifestyle changes are advisable for both conditions. Following a healthy and balanced diet and following a regular, adapted exercise plan can also aid. Maintaining a healthy weight can reduce pressure on the joints and ease symptoms. Stopping smoking and avoiding second-hand smoke are also recommended, especially for RA patients. 


Was this article helpful to you?  
Give it a like and share your thoughts and questions with the community in the comments below!  
Take care!

5

3 comments


lesmal • Ambassador
on 08/03/2022

Thank you for an informative article.

I have osteoarthritis in the hands and knees, which is painful for walking. I am very limited on the choice of painkillers I am allowed with my other medications. I only take paracetamol which does not always help.



Turbogran
on 10/03/2022

Good article I have OA in knees, spine and ankles and other joints not diagnosed as yet.


richard0804 • Ambassador
on 10/03/2022

Yet another very informative article from our manager. Arthritis has been a real pain to me for around 50 years, it started in my very late teens and I have learned to live with it. It can very debilitating at times.

Life goes on? STAY SAFE out there. Richard

You will also like

In fibromyalgia, cognitive symptoms are worse than in rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis

In fibromyalgia, cognitive symptoms are worse than in rheumatoid arthritis

Read the article
See the testimonial
Osteoarthritis diagnosis: Carenity members share their story

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis diagnosis: Carenity members share their story

Read the article
Photograph Testimonial: Continuing to work with rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis

Photograph Testimonial: Continuing to work with rheumatoid arthritis

Read the article

Most commented discussions

Fact sheets