Rheumatoid Arthritis vs. Osteoarthritis: What’s the Difference?

Rheumatoid arthritis is a complex disease with varying symptoms and complications that differ for each patient. Often times, rheumatoid arthritis symptoms are confused with osteoarthritis symptoms. This confusion happens commonly during the first signs of arthritic symptoms.

Despite the fact that both are types of arthritis cause joint pain, the two disease have different diagnoses. Interestingly, though the two are chronic and non-curable disease, they are completely separate conditions with different causes, symptoms, prognoses, and treatments.

Rheumatoid Arthritis vs. Osteoarthritis: Disease

The primary difference between rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis is the nature of the disease. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder that produces inflammatory joint symptoms throughout the body. Osteoarthritis is a degenerative condition that is the result of increased wear and tear on joints. Osteoarthritis may produce inflammatory symptoms as well but primarily destroys joint cartilage over time.

Osteoarthritis affects an estimated 27 million Americans while only 1.3 million Americans have rheumatoid arthritis. Both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis are more prevalent in women than in men. Rheumatoid arthritis can develop in patients anytime between the ages of 30 and 60 years old. Osteoarthritis generally develops later in life.

Rheumatoid Arthritis vs. Osteoarthritis: Causes

Rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis are caused by different issues with different risk factors. This is what makes the two types of arthritis diseases primarily different.

Osteoarthritis Causes

Osteoarthritis is caused by continued wear and tear on specific joints in the patient’s body. It is a chronic condition that can get worse with age. Certain jobs or sports that involve repetitive motions can also lead to developing osteoarthritis. These activities place additional pressure on joints which may continue to wear down the cartilage. Old injuries or ones that didn’t heal properly can also increase the risk of developing osteoarthritis.

There is also a potential genetic risk factor associated with osteoarthritis whereby it’s possible to inherit cartilage deterioration.

Rheumatoid Arthritis Causes

The exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis is unknown at this time. Doctors do know that rheumatoid arthritis is triggered by an autoimmune disorder whereby harmful antibodies are produced that attack the healthy joint tissue in patients. What causes the autoimmune disorder to develop in certain patients is unknown.

The primary risk factors for triggering rheumatoid arthritis are thought to be genetic, environmental, hormonal, and even certain lifestyle factors like smoking and obesity. Rheumatoid arthritis affects patients from a variety of backgrounds and so it is difficult to determine one specific cause.

Rheumatoid Arthritis vs. Osteoarthritis: Symptoms

Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms have a rather rapid onset where the condition can worsen in a matter of weeks. Osteoarthritis symptoms slowly develop and gradually worsen over a long period of time.

Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms affect joints all the over the body including hands, fingers, elbows, knees, and hips. Osteoarthritis frequently affects the small finger joints and thumb, as well as the knees. Rheumatoid arthritis always affects multiple joints, whereas osteoarthritis may only affect one particular joint or area of the body.

At the onset of rheumatoid arthritis, symptoms like fatigue, fever, weight loss, and loss of appetite are indicative of the disease’s development. Osteoarthritis doesn’t produce these types of additional symptoms.

One common characteristic of rheumatoid arthritis is that it produces symmetrical symptoms, meaning both sides of the body are affected similarly. Osteoarthritis doesn’t necessarily produce the same symptoms. It’s based entirely on wear and tear levels in individual joints.

Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms also include prolonged morning stiffness lasting greater than 30 minutes. Osteoarthritis patients may feel morning stiffness, but it generally subsides within the first 30 minutes.

Here is a comparison between rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis symptoms:

Rheumatoid Arthritis:

  • Joint pain, stiffness, swelling affecting multiple joints
  • Symmetrical symptoms affecting both sides of the body
  • Morning stiffness lasting longer than 30 minutes
  • Additional symptoms like fatigue, fever, and malaise

Osteoarthritis Symptoms:

  • Joint pain and stiffness usually affecting hands, fingers or knees
  • Joints on one side affected worse than on the other side
  • Morning stiffness lasting fewer than 30 minutes
  • Possible spine and hip pain as well

Rheumatoid Arthritis vs. Osteoarthritis: Diagnosis

Though both diseases are forms of arthritis, they have two separate clinical diagnoses. Sometimes it can be difficult to reach a proper diagnosis because the two have such similar physical symptoms.

Rheumatoid arthritis is diagnosed by performing a physical examination of symptoms as well as taking into account family medical history. Doctors also perform blood tests to look for the presence of antibodies that are known triggers of rheumatoid arthritis. Imaging tests are also performed to look for signs of joint damage and inflammation.

Osteoarthritis is also diagnosed with imaging tests. X-rays and MRIs show the progressive damage and deterioration happening the joints. Osteoarthritis can’t be diagnosed with a specific blood test. However, blood tests can help rule out rheumatoid arthritis or other diseases that cause joint pain and inflammation.

Rheumatoid Arthritis vs. Osteoarthritis: Prognosis

Both diseases are chronic meaning they are long-term. Neither diseases have any known cures. Osteoarthritis is degenerative, meaning it will continue to worsen with time. With appropriate treatment, osteoarthritis can generally have a positive prognosis.

Rheumatoid arthritis is much more unpredictable. Numerous complications can arise as a result of the autoimmune disorder. In some cases, other conditions like respiratory and cardiovascular diseases can develop. Rheumatoid arthritis patients are also at risk of diseases like lymphoma and lupus. Because rheumatoid arthritis can progress differently in each patient, there is no general prognosis.

Rheumatoid Arthritis vs. Osteoarthritis: Treatment

Neither form of arthritis has any known cure. The objective of treatment for both types of arthritis is to reduce pain, manage symptoms, and prevent further destruction to the joints. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen are used to treat both types of arthritis symptoms by reducing swelling and pain.

Because rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder, specific drugs are prescribed to stop the immune system attacks and prevent further damage.

Physical and occupational therapy are both used to help patients improve mobility and adjust their daily routines. Exercise, weight management, and overall healthy living habits are essential in treating and manage both diseases.