“Osteoarthritis vs rheumatoid arthritis” is a common comparison because they are two of the most common forms of arthritis. Arthritis is a catch-all term for a series of related conditions that cause joint pain and inflammation. However, despite their similarities, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are very different, with varying treatment methods, causes, and symptoms. Understanding these conditions’ differences can help people administer better home treatments and know what to look for when visiting a medical professional. First, the similarities: Osteoarthritis vs rheumatoid arthritis often affect the joints, although rheumatoid arthritis is not limited to joint pain. However, the way they affect the joints differs, as do their respective causes.
What Is Osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis is the most commonly diagnosed form of joint pain in the world. It is primarily age-related and can be considered a degenerative joint disease. The most common age of onset for osteoarthritis is 65, although it can occur earlier. Most people will experience symptoms of osteoarthritis in advanced age, with certain factors significantly increasing the risk and pain associated with osteoarthritis.
Certain risk factors can accelerate the deterioration of the joints, such as sedentary living (lack of supporting musculature), a highly demanding physical job, frequent smoking or drinking, poor nutrition, and genetics. The excessive wear and tear of the cartilage between each of our bones cause osteoarthritis. While sinew and fascia connect bone and muscle, bones in contact with other bones are separated by cartilage to avoid the painful friction that can occur when bone tissue continuously rubs against itself.
However, cartilage exists in a precarious state where it does not necessarily adapt nor regenerate effectively, due in part to a lack of significant circulation to the part of the body where two bones meet. This means that excessive use – and disuse of the surrounding muscles – can lead to the degeneration and breakdown of cartilage, causing bone-on-bone friction in joints such as the elbows, shoulders, and knees.
This can irritate the surrounding tissue and lead to the formation of bone spurs in response to the constant friction, further causing pain and inflammation. Osteoarthritis is not systematic. It begins in a single joint, and while it can affect multiple different joints at once, the rate at which it develops is usually asymmetrical, as we tend to favor one knee over another, arm over another, and so on.
What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)?
While osteoarthritis is a wear-and-tear degenerative disease, rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition that affects the joints and specific organs in the body. While also a form of arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis has a different cause and pathology. It is also the disease most people think of when they think of chronic arthritic pain. Because it is a systematic autoimmune condition, rheumatoid arthritis occurs concurrently on both sides of the body.
If you are experiencing sudden hip pain in both sides of the hip, or if the fingers of both hands ache and feel swollen in the mornings, it is more likely that your pain is rheumatic. While osteoarthritis is localized to the joint in which it occurs, rheumatoid arthritis can develop, spread, and worsen within just a few short weeks. Rheumatoid arthritis pain is also often accompanied by other systematic symptoms of a weakened immune system, including:
- Rise in temperature (as well as fever symptoms)
- Sudden weight loss and loss of appetite
- Chronic physical fatigue
In addition to your joints, rheumatoid arthritis often causes inflammation and pain in the eyes and lungs (coughing fits, eye strain and swelling, and more).
Other Types of Arthritis
While osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are some of the most common forms of arthritis, it is essential to note that there are well over a hundred different conditions under the label of arthritis, which in itself means joint inflammation. A few other related yet distinct forms of arthritis include:
If you are experiencing joint pain in combination with weakness, swelling, fatigue, and other symptoms, it may not be productive to assume that you have one condition or the other. Both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis have similar symptoms yet share these with some of the disorders mentioned above. Your best bet is to visit a medical professional and receive a proper physical examination.
Even trained doctors will not make an educated guess about your exact condition without confirming their suspicions with a few medical tests. The most common testing for osteoarthritis vs rheumatoid arthritis includes a physical examination, a blood test, and an x-ray or other imaging test. In some cases, your doctor may also want to extract some joint fluid to get an analysis of your synovial fluids and better narrow down the form of arthritis you may be struggling with. A proper diagnosis is essential because the treatment plans for an autoimmune condition like gout or rheumatoid arthritis are very different from those for osteoarthritis.
Pain relief and improved quality of life are two critical tenets in osteoarthritic treatment. Doctors will prescribe a patient different pharmacological and physical therapies to reduce swelling and improve pain symptoms, address pain early in the morning, and help restore function to the affected joint. Surgery is not a first-line treatment but may be necessary in cases where the disease has progressed to such a significant degree that movement is impossible. A joint replacement can ultimately resolve many osteoarthritis issues. Long before that, however, treatments may include:
- Non-opioid painkillers
- Corticosteroid injections
- Physical therapy
- Heat therapy
- Cold therapy (to reduce acute swelling)
- Massage therapy
- And more
Treating Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)
Rheumatoid arthritis is triggered by an autoimmune disease, causing your own body to begin attacking itself. One of the main treatments for rheumatoid arthritis involves using immunosuppressants, drugs that suppress and reduce immune system activity. These include biologic drugs, disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs), and traditional painkillers, ranging from low-dose opioids to non-opioid and anti-inflammatory drugs. In both cases, physical therapy and lifestyle modification can positively affect mental and physical wellbeing by keeping body weight low and improving the strength and musculature around the affected joint, taking pressure off the joint, and distributing it throughout the body.