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

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

Arthritis is a general description that describes pain in the joints. However, there are many different kinds of arthritis that each have their own causes, symptoms, and ways to treat it -- for example, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis can be difficult to distinguish.

While each can be described as joint pain and each of them can feel the same, it’s important to be able to tell which is which, and the difference might even surprise you.

This guide breaks down osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, key differences between the two, and how each can be soothed even just a bit.


Osteoarthritis is also known as degenerative arthritis. It is a disease that is non-inflammatory and causes cartilage to break down. Cartilage is the spongy bone that helps protect your joints and harder bones from wear and tear. When this cartilage breaks down, it can cause serious pain and joint issues.

Osteoarthritis is the most common kind of arthritis. In fact, it’s a challenge for over 27 million people in the United States alone. If you experience osteoarthritis, you’ll probably feel it in your hands (especially in the fingers), knees, hips, and spine.

Causes of Osteoarthritis 

Osteoarthritis is caused by simple wear and tear throughout life. This is what makes it such a common disease, especially in older adults. The more you use your joints and bones, the more at risk you are for contracting osteoarthritis.

Risk Factors for Osteoarthritis 

Here are some common risk factors associated with developing osteoarthritis:

  • Age. Your age is also a determining factor for developing osteoarthritis. If you’re older, you’ve used your joints more and most likely experienced more wear and tear.

  • Gender. If you’re a woman, you have a higher risk of developing osteoarthritis than men.

  • If you suffer from other forms of arthritis, you may be at a greater risk of developing osteoarthritis. Especially if you have rheumatoid arthritis, you’re at a greater risk of osteoarthritis.

  • Gout is a form of arthritis that targets the big toe. If you have gout, you also have an increased risk of developing osteoarthritis.

  • If you are overweight, you’re also at an increased risk.

  • Joint deformities can increase your risk of developing osteoarthritis because of how your joints rub together differently.

  • Injuries can also increase the risk of developing osteoarthritis. If you have experienced trauma to a bone or joint, you’re more likely to experience the breakdown of the cartilage that covers these joints and be at a greater risk of osteoarthritis.

Symptoms of Osteoarthritis

Here are some of the common symptoms of Osteoarthritis:

  • Pain that comes and goes. If you have pain in your fingers, hands, knees, hips, or spine, and this pain is severe sometimes, but goes away at others, you may have osteoarthritis. You will know it’s getting worse if your pain begins to be constant and doesn’t diminish, even when you sleep.

  • Cracking or creaking of your joints and bones.

  • Reduced mobility range. If your mobility and range of motion are decreasing, you may have osteoarthritis.

  • Weak muscles around your joints. Osteoarthritis can also cause your muscles around the joints you experience pain in to become weaker. This is especially common in the knee.

  • Swelling is another symptom of osteoarthritis. Joints can sometimes swell, causing them to feel extra sensitive and tender.

  • Deformed joints. If osteoarthritis is progressed enough, it can cause deformity. For instance, fingers can become crooked and misshapen.

How is Osteoarthritis Diagnosed? 

If you feel pain in your joints, arthritis might be your first thought. You may begin worrying about how osteoarthritis is diagnosed and treated. Here’s a quick guide for what your doctor may test for when looking for osteoarthritis.

First, your doctor may remove some of the synovial fluid (fluid in your joints) with a needle to inspect it. This procedure is known as arthrocentesis. They may also perform an arthroscopy, which is a small camera that is placed in your joint to inspect the area and look for signs of osteoarthritis.

Ultrasounds and physical examination can also be used to determine if your pain is due to osteoarthritis or not, and these procedures tend to be very simple. No matter what your doctor uses to diagnose OA, be sure to seek medical help if you notice signs or symptoms of osteoarthritis and are experiencing joint pain.

Rheumatoid Arthritis 

Now that you understand osteoarthritis, let’s talk about rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is actually an autoimmune disease. In other words, it’s a disease that takes place when your immune system is unable to distinguish your own body from foreign pathogens, so it mistakenly attacks its own body tissues. So, with rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system mistakenly attacks the thin membrane lining the joints in your body.

Rheumatoid arthritis is both a chronic and a progressive disease. It is chronic, meaning there is no cure, and it is progressive meaning it gets worse or moves through the body. It may begin in one place in the body such as the hands and travel through bodily tissues to bigger and deeper joints such as the hips and knees.

Similar to osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis can be experienced in flares. There may be days when it is more serious and painful, and other days where symptoms are barely noticeable. Once pain begins to get more consistent, the condition may be getting more serious, expanding to the lungs, heart, and eyes.

Causes of Rheumatoid Arthritis 

This kind of arthritis occurs when your immune system mistakenly attacks the synovial membrane or the lining around your joints. When this happens, the synovial membrane swells, becoming thicker, and this causes the membrane to rub against the cartilage more vigorously.

Since arthritis is all about the wear and tear of cartilaginous bone, this increased friction on the cartilage can destroy the cartilage bone and lead to rheumatoid arthritis.

Risk Factors for Rheumatoid Arthritis 

  • Surprisingly, age is not a risk factor for developing rheumatoid arthritis. In fact, it can be contracted at any age.

  • Gender. Women are at a greater risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis than men are.

  • If rheumatoid arthritis runs in your immediate family and your parent or sibling has it, you have a higher risk of developing it too.

  • Smoking. If you smoke tobacco, your immune system can weaken, which increases your risk of developing it as well.

  • Obesity is also a risk factor for developing rheumatoid arthritis.

Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis 

The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis look very similar to those of osteoarthritis, so it’s important to visit a medical professional to help you distinguish between the two. 

Here are some common symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis that you may be experiencing:

  • Swelling of your joints or the area around your joints. This particularly happens with the hands and feet.

  • Pain in your joints or stiffness in moving your joints, specifically the hands and feet.

  • Warmth in your joints.

  • Decreased range of motion. If you experience less mobility and don’t have as big a range of motion as you used to, this could be because of rheumatoid arthritis.

  • Loss of appetite or weight loss.

  • Low-grade fever.

  • Tiredness and fatigue.

  • Anemia is also a symptom of rheumatoid arthritis. Anemia is a condition where your red blood cells are unable to carry oxygen to your bodily tissues and organs. This can be because you don’t have enough red blood cells, and this can also result in fatigue and weakness.

  • Symmetry of pain and symptoms. Rheumatoid arthritis is a symmetrical disease. In other words, if you experience pain and swelling in your left knee, you will also feel it in your right knee.

If you experience any of these symptoms, or any of these conditions worsen, seek help from a medical professional.


Arthritis can be a challenge for those of any age and can make things you once did with ease much more difficult. However, there are treatments for both of these types of arthritis and tips to help you manage them.

Treatment for Osteoarthritis 

For those living with osteoarthritis, there are many simple treatments, as well as more advanced treatments to help decrease pain and get you back to doing what you love.

Creams, Ointments, and Medications

One of the most recommended and effective avenues of relief for osteoarthritis is topical relief creams. These come in all different kinds, and some may even be prescribed by your doctor. 

If you’re looking for this kind of relief, try a topical hemp relief salve or a hemp skin relief cream to feel quick, targeted relief for joints and muscles while also working to nourish your skin. 

Your doctor may also prescribe medications for you to take to relieve pain and treat swelling and inflammation.

Surgery and Physical Therapy

While surgery and physical therapy are long term relief options and are more advanced, they can relieve pain and even prevent it from progressing. Physical therapy would treat osteoarthritis by strengthening the muscles that surround your affected joints. Surgery may include fusing bones together to help strengthen them, placing an implant or artificial bone for support, or realigning bones to relieve pain.

Treatment for Rheumatoid Arthritis 

Rheumatoid arthritis is unfortunately chronic, meaning there is no cure. However, it can be put into remission.


If you suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, your doctor may prescribe you a non-steroidal pain reliever. These medicines target and relieve inflammation, and thus relieve pain. Steroid medications are also used to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

Surgery and Physical Therapy

Surgery to treat symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis involve removing inflamed tissues from the affected joints or tendons. This not only soothes pain in the area but can also prevent further damage. Sometimes rheumatoid arthritis can result in nodules or growths, but these can also be removed with surgery.  


Whether you experience rare joint pain here and there or have more severe arthritis such as rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis, you are not alone. These symptoms are not untreatable. Being able to tell the difference between rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis is the first step to recognizing which one you have and learning what to do about it.

For more information about living with arthritis, contact your general care physician and talk about diagnoses and treatment options. 








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