Osteoarthritis vs. Rheumatoid Arthritis

Osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) are two of the most common forms of arthritis. While both OA and RA share many similarities, understanding the differences between their symptoms is important—especially when it comes to determining proper diagnosis and treatments.
Below, we will break down osteoarthritis vs. rheumatoid arthritis to help you get a better understanding of their key similarities and differences.

What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is the most common joint disease in the world. In the United States alone, it affects one in seven adults, which equates to 32.5 million people. However, there are also many hidden cases, as most people have not had their joint pain diagnosed. This is because many people who live with joint pain believe that the symptoms accompanying osteoarthritis—such as stiff and painful joints—are a natural part of growing older. OA can affect all the joints in the body and is a lifelong disease that currently has no cure. However, there are high quality treatments available that can ease the symptoms.

Characteristics of osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis typically begins later in a person’s life, with the onset of symptoms happening slowly. With OA, patients experience symptoms such as achy, tender joints, but have little to no swelling. Additionally, those living with OA experience morning stiffness that typically lasts 1 hour—and stiffness typically returns at the end of the day or after periods of physical activity.

OA symptoms are often limited to one set of joints—including large joints like the hips, knees, and spine, as well as smaller joints like the finger joints closest to the fingernails or thumbs—with symptoms beginning on one side of the body and spreading to the other side. If several joints are affected by OA, it is known as generalized osteoarthritis.

In the case of osteoarthritis, cartilage (tissue that provides a gliding surface for bones inside a joint) has broken down. This breakdown process creates resistance in the joint when it is used, which causes pain and discomfort. In some cases where osteoarthritis is far advanced, the shape of the joints can also become distorted.

What is rheumatoid arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is a less common inflammatory joint condition that affects multiple joints in the body. It is an autoimmune disease, which means that the body’s own immune system attacks the joint for reasons that are not fully understood. As RA is a systemic disease that affects multiple joints, it generally provides more symptoms than OA. These symptoms can take the form of generalized pain, more pronounced stiffness, and tiredness. Just like OA, RA is a chronic disease that cannot be cured. However, there are modern medications available that can slow down the disease before the joints become permanently damaged.

Characteristics of rheumatoid arthritis

Unlike osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis can happen at any point in a person’s life and affects the entire body. With RA, patients typically experience a rapid onset of symptoms—including painful, swollen, and stiff joints—in as little as a few weeks to a few months. Additionally, those living with RA experience morning stiffness that typically lasts longer than 1 hour, and fatigue and a feeling of being ill are commonly present. RA is often a symmetrical type of arthritis, which means it affects both small and large joints—including hands, wrists, elbows, or balls of the feet—on both sides of the body simultaneously.

Anyone affected by rheumatoid arthritis has chronic inflammation in their joints, which means that the whole joint is breaking down. Therefore, rheumatoid arthritis does not only affect the cartilage. With RA, the joints then become swollen and tender, which is known as synovitis. The continuous pain, which is present both at rest and during exertion, may be so intense that anyone affected is prevented from carrying out simple everyday tasks. Anything from getting out of bed to brushing teeth can be difficult to do. Additionally, it is common for those living with RA to feel tired and depressed.

How to know if you have osteoarthritis vs. rheumatoid arthritis

Osteoarthritis often develops when one or more joints have been subjected to some form of long-term overexertion. This can happen in a few different ways, including the result of a monotonous movement pattern, previous injuries (also known as post-traumatic osteoarthritis), or if a person affected is overweight. Being overweight means that the body weight a person is carrying is greater than the muscles can manage to bear. We also know that there is a hereditary form of osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis develops at different rates in different individuals, with its symptoms very often emerging in a stealthy manner.

Common symptoms for rheumatoid arthritis generally include painful joints and long-term stiffness in the body, mainly in the morning. Heredity is a common factor with rheumatoid arthritis. Therefore, it is important for anyone who has close relatives who suffer from the disease to rigorously report any symptoms to a doctor so that any action can be taken at an early stage. If RA is treated early, it is possible to slow down the symptoms and prevent any long-term damage to the joints.

What to do if you suspect you have osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis

If you suspect that you are affected by osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis, you should visit your primary care physician or a rheumatologist. OA and RA are clinical diagnoses that are made by a doctor or physiotherapist. A clinical diagnosis means that the diagnosis is mainly made based on the patient’s typical medical history. Blood tests and X-rays are typically only used to confirm the diagnosis.

Treatment similarities between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis

After an osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis has been confirmed, it’s easy for patients to feel overwhelmed—especially since there is no specific cure for either disease. However, there are effective treatment plans available, and treatments for both OA and RA are similar.

Physical training with arthritis is the most important form of treatment by far. It is important that those affected by OA or RA are involved in some form of physical activity. This activity will preferably involve various exercises from a specially adapted exercise program. Weight loss can also play a critical role in reducing symptoms, as it can minimize pressure on the joints.

Anti-inflammatory medications like acetaminophen and NSAIDs may be given to treat the most intense pain. However, they should preferably not be taken for long periods of time. They should only be used to help get through the worst periods of pain. It is also a good idea to ease the strain on the affected joints by using different types of assistive devices, including orthoses, splints, and inserts.

Get help treating osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis with Joint Academy

Today’s technology-driven society has led to telehealth becoming a popular way for patients to receive medical guidance or treatments. Fortunately, Joint Academy is at the forefront of virtual physical therapy technology that can be used as a first line of defense for conditions like osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. With the Joint Academy app, licensed physical therapists can connect with patients digitally and provide them with personalized, evidence-based treatment programs to follow.