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What’s the Difference Between Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Arthritis can appear in over 100 forms, but when people you know say they have arthritis, they likely mean they have either osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis. These two forms are the most common and affect people in varying degrees.

While osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) produce similar symptoms, their origins and diagnoses are very different. So what’s the difference between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis?

Osteoarthritis

OA is typically brought on by the normal wear-and-tear of your body as you age. It is the most common type of arthritis, but it comes in varying degrees and usually doesn’t develop until later in life. Many people over the age of 60 will develop OA over time, but some won’t ever be severely affected.

OA is degenerative, which means that it causes the cartilage around the bone to wear down. The space between joints decreases as the cartilage wears down, causing bones to rub together and cause pain.

Symptoms of OA

The most common symptoms include inflammation, aching after long periods of rest, swelling around the joint, and pain when walking or doing daily activities.

While OA can affect any joint, it most commonly affects the hips, knees, and shoulders, as those joints usually get the most wear from years of hard labor jobs, past injuries, exercise, and weight gain.

Treatment of OA

Treatment options for OA depend on the severity of the condition. Some people with minimal joint pain can relieve symptoms by changing diet, exercising with low-impact exercises, and doing physical therapy. If pain worsens, our surgeons often suggest steroid injections. These injections can potentially last for months before needing another one.

If OA has caused your joint cartilage to completely wear down and everyday life is painful, you may consider a joint replacement surgery. Joint replacement removes the damaged cartilage and bone, then replaces it with an implant that can last for upwards of 20 years.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that causes the joints to feel inflamed. Synovial fluid around the joints builds up, causing swelling and pain, which often feels similar to osteoarthritis pain. While doctors do not know the exact cause of RA, they do know that the disease triggers harmful antibodies to attack healthy joints.

Unlike OA, in which you may only experience pain in one joint, RA always affects multiple joints, and it usually occurs symmetrically. If your left wrist has RA, your right wrist likely has RA as well. RA can also occur at any age, so even children can be diagnosed with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis.

Symptoms of RA

Most symptoms of RA seem similar to those of OA: swelling, pain and stiffness in joints, and fatigue. People may also notice numbness and tingling, dry mouth, and chest pain. If you have RA in your hands and feet, you may discover bumps on your fingers and toes.

The only way to truly diagnose RA is through imaging and diagnostic tests. MRIs often detect RA better than x-ray imaging.

Treatment of RA

Because RA is an autoimmune disease, it is a lifelong condition that can be managed, but not eradicated. Treatments for managing RA can include changes in diet, medications, steroid injections, specific kinds of exercise, and home remedies. Many people with RA learn how to manage their symptoms so they can still enjoy an active lifestyle.

If you have RA or are concerned that you might, it is recommended that you see a rheumatologist. The surgeons at Midwest Center for Joint Replacement operate on patients with RA. However, many times, a rheumatologist can do more to work with you than a surgeon can.


If you have been struggling with symptoms similar to any of these symptoms above, come on in! Our team is highly specialized and can talk with you about treatment or referral options, if necessary. We are in the business of treating people with joint pain, so if you have questions, you know who to ask.

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