Rheumatoid Arthritis and Osteoarthritis: Recognizing the Differences


If you’ve been diagnosed with arthritis, you probably know the difference between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. While some of the characteristics are similar, each requires its own treatment, so it’s important to make sure that your diagnosis is correct.

Osteoarthritis is much more common than rheumatoid arthritis. In fact, rheumatoid arthritis only affects about one-tenth of the number of people as osteoarthritis. The difference between the two is the cause of the symptoms.

The facts about osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage that caps the bones in your joints begins to erode and is caused by normal mechanical wear and tear. It usually starts later in life and builds slowly over the course of several years.

If you have osteoarthritis, your joints might feel achy and tender, but you may not see any actual swelling. Often, the achiness begins on one side of the body and spreads to the other side. People may first notice pain in their finger joints near the tips, in their thumbs, in large weight-bearing joints (like hips or knees), or in their spine. Most people with osteoarthritis experience stiffness in the morning that only lasts for a short time but returns at the end of the day or after a higher level of activity.

Living with osteoarthritis

While there is no cure for osteoarthritis, anti-inflammatory medications could help ease the pain. Your physician might suggest physical or occupational therapy as well to improve strength and function. Staying active and within a healthy weight range are also highly recommended. If your body isn’t moving enough, your joints may become weak and stiff. Strong muscles protect your joints, and losing just one pound can take four pounds of pressure off your knees.

One of the best things you can do to help manage osteoarthritis is eat a healthy diet, keep stress at bay, and get enough exercise and rest on a daily basis. CDPHP® offers a variety of free wellness classes to help you stay active, eat right, and even deal with certain chronic conditions, like arthritis.

The facts about rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the body’s joints. The synovial membrane that protects the joints becomes inflamed, possibly causing erosion and pain. You could have this type of arthritis at any age, and the symptoms often progress quickly.

If you’re suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, you might experience stiff, swollen, and painful joints. Unlike osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis will usually affect symmetrical joints (e.g., both hands, both wrists, the balls of both feet, etc.). Often, someone with rheumatoid arthritis is stiff in the morning, but the stiffness lasts longer than it would for someone who doesn’t have the condition. Some people with rheumatoid arthritis feel ill or are frequently fatigued.

Living with rheumatoid arthritis

Like osteoarthritis, there is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis – only treatments that can relieve pain and slow joint damage. If you are newly diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, ask your doctor whether occupational or physical therapy might be helpful.

For some sufferers, doctors prescribe nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to reduce pain and inflammation. Some NSAIDs are available over the counter, like ibuprofen and naproxen. Even if you’re taking an over-the-counter NSAID, be sure to consult your physician about the appropriate dosage. Long-term use of NSAIDs may cause serious side effects, so your physician should guide any medications that you take.

Other medication options for rheumatoid arthritis include:

  • Corticosteroid medication (like prednisone)
  • Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs)
  • Immunosuppressants
  • TNF-alpha inhibitors

Aside from medication, a therapist can show you exercises that help keep your joints flexible, as well as teach you methods for everyday tasks that are easier on your joints. In addition, an array of websites, catalogs, and medical supply stores that offer assistive devices designed to help you with cooking, getting dressed, and other activities are available.

Consult your doctor

If you have an arthritis diagnosis, your doctor will discuss your options with you. In extreme cases of either osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis, he or she might recommend surgery. Any surgery has risk, so be sure to have an in-depth discussion with your doctor to make sure it’s the route you want or need to ease your symptoms.

CDPHP can help

An arthritis diagnosis can be confusing and stressful, especially when you’re not sure which treatment option is right for you. Sometimes talking it over with a health care professional is helpful. Our Health Coach ConnectionSM program provides 24/7 access to a licensed nurse, dietitian, or other health expert who can help you monitor your needs and work more closely with your doctor.

Photo by kcxd / CC BY

3 Responses to “Rheumatoid Arthritis and Osteoarthritis: Recognizing the Differences”

    • Thank you for your comment. We know that it can be difficult to distinguish between rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, so we’re glad that we could help make it clearer so that every patient can get the appropriate treatment. Take care! ~ Jane

  1. thanks buddy for sharing this information. Now really i knew about the difference between rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.


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