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Rheumatoid Arthritis Vs Osteoarthritis

The term arthritis is used to refer to a number of medical conditions characterized by the inflammation of joints leading to joint pain of differing severity. Two common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, both affecting the joints.

In this session, we are making a comparison of rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.

Property Rheumatoid Arthritis Osteoarthritis
Type of disorder Autoimmune disorder Degenerative disorder
Treatment methods Immunosuppressive drugs, corticosteroid and anti-inflammatory medications Corticosteroid and anti-inflammatory medications
Diagnosis MRI, X-rays, figuring out of abnormal c protein levels MRI, X-rays, figuring out of abnormal c protein levels
Symmetry Symmetrical Less symmetrical

Type Of The Disorder

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder that is caused by the attack of immune system on the body cells. In RA patients, the immune system interprets the lining around the joints as a foreign entity similar to a bacteria or virus and attacks the cells in the lining.

The attack leads to the buildup of fluid within the joints causing swelling as well the one or more of the following symptoms.

  • Joint pain
  • Stiffness
  • Inflammation

Osteoarthritis is different from RA because it isn’t an autoimmune disorder but a degenerative disorder that causes the breakdown of cartilage of the joints. As the cartilage wears off, bones rub against each other exposing small nerves, ultimately leading to severe pain symptoms.

Risk Factors

Women belong to the high risk group of both type of arthritis, with incidences of RA and OA common in women than in men. OA as well as RA is common in people belonging to the older age group but rheumatoid arthritis can occur even at young age.

Factors that put at higher risk of OA include:

  • Overweight
  • diabetes
  • Gout
  • Joint deformities


Some of the basic symptoms of RA and OA are the same. They include:

  • Limited range of movement
  • Tenderness in affected joints
  • Stiffness in joints
  • Intensity of symptoms in the morning

Being a systemic disease, RA can affect the parts of your entire body including heart, eyes, lungs etc.

Muscle aches, low grade fever and excessive fatigue are some of the early signs of RA, and once the disease progresses to the advanced stages, hard lumps develop near the joints.

Being a degenerative disorder, the symptoms of OA are limited mostly to the joints. You might notice the development of lumps near the joints but the nature of the lumps in OA is different from that of RA. Bone spur is a common characteristic of osteoarthritis, where people notice excess bone growth at the edge of affected joints.

Affected Joints

In people with rheumatoid arthritis, the effects usually begin at the smaller joints like the joints of the fingers. In the early stages, you might experience pain and swelling in the finger points which then spread to larger joints like ankle, shoulder and knee joints as the disease progresses. Being a symmetrical disease, the symptoms of RA are experienced equally on both sides of the body.

Unlike RA, osteoarthritis is less symmetrical, meaning that you might have pain with varying severities in the joints in the left and right parts of the body. Similar to RA, OA causes pain in the joints in hands and fingers and the disease affects the joints of the hip and spine in addition to the knee.

Treatment Methods

Currently there is no cure for RA and OA, and all available treatments attempt to control the symptoms and improve the quality of life of the patients. Primary goals of RA and OA treatment is reducing pain and minimizing the damage to the joints to improve its function. Depending on the severity of your condition, your doctor may use differing treatment approach for joint pain relief.

Corticosteroid and anti-inflammatory medications are quite effective for treating both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Since RA is an autoimmune disorder, immunosuppressive drugs can reduce joint damage by preventing the immune system from attacking the body cells.

 In order to reduce the inflammation that is characteristic of rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, doctors prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs that helps to alleviate pain and improve the motility of the patients Sometimes doctors may recommend steroid based medications too to reduce inflammation of joints.


Physical examination and analysis of medical history is generally used for diagnosing both RA and OA. As the symptoms tend to overlap, especially in the earlier stages, diagnosing them is not that easy. Blood tests are commonly used to diagnose RA, as the condition leaves biomarkers like cyclic citrullinated peptide antibody in the blood.

Abnormal level of C-reactive protein is an indicative of inflammation of the joints and checking its levels is a common diagnostic method. To determine the severity and location of the damage caused by RA or OA, doctors may use imaging tests like MRI, X-Rays etc.


Both RA and OA are chronic conditions that worsen if proper treatment is not taken, and the effects might be mild in some and severe in others. As OA affects lesser number of joints and does not have systemic symptoms, it can be treated easily when compared to RA.