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

Man with Arthritic Pain

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), arthritis affects more than 54 million US adults. Did you know there are many different types of arthritis? Two major ones are osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). OA is the most common type of arthritis overall, and RA is the most common type of inflammatory arthritis.

What Are the Differences Between OA and RA?

  • Osteoarthritis
    • Description: 
      • OA represents a breakdown of cartilage, often due to wear and tear. It affects more than 32.5 million people in the United States.
    • Onset: 
      • Symptoms often begin gradually and usually start in one or a few joints.
    • Symptoms:
      • Stiffness, which usually lasts no more than 30 minutes
      • Joint soreness after overuse or inactivity
      • Joint pain that may be less in the morning and worse in the evening after a day’s activity.
    • Occurrences: 
      • OA commonly occurs in the weight-bearing joints of the hips, knees and lower back. It also can affect the neck and smaller joints.
    • Prevalence:  
      • Can affect both men and women, usually over the age of 40
    • Treatment:  
      • Speak to your physician before starting a treatment plan. Possible recommendations could include:
        • Exercise
        • Weight control
        • Physical and occupational therapy
        • Self-management/lifestyle changes
        • Medications
        • Surgery, if the therapies above do not do enough to relieve symptoms
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis
    • Description: 
      • RA is due to inflammation in the joint’s connective tissues. It can lead to the destruction of the articular cartilage, which covers the ends of the bones in the joints.
    • Onset: 
      • Symptoms may appear rapidly over weeks or months.
    • Symptoms:
      • Morning stiffness that lasts for more than 30 to 60 minutes
      • Pain and swelling in several joints such as in the hand, knees or feet that may interfere with activities of daily living
      • May be accompanied by fatigue and loss of appetite
    • Occurrences: 
      • RA is symmetrical; if a joint on one side of the body is affected, then typically the corresponding joint on the other side of the body is also involved.
    • Prevalence: 
      • Shown to affect more women than men, with onset often in the age range of 20s to 60s
    • Treatment: 
      • Your physician may recommend using medications. Some affect the immune system or have other side effects, making careful monitoring very important. Some of the available medications help relieve symptoms and reduce inflammation. They can also modify the disease or put it into remission.

While there is still no known cure for arthritis, there are treatment options available. They can help relieve symptoms and/or slow the progression of the disease. “If you develop symptoms of arthritis, it is important to share that information with your healthcare provider in order to determine the cause and consider appropriate treatment options. Your healthcare provider may suggest that you see a rheumatologist or other specialist in musculoskeletal health,” says Sarah B. Lieber, MD, MS, HSS Rheumatologist.

Movement Is the Best Medicine

Exercise is crucial for people with arthritis. It increases strength and flexibility, reduces joint pain and helps combat fatigue. Exercise can help improve your health and fitness without hurting your joints.  Speak with your doctor, physical therapist or another member of your care team about the type of exercise that is right for you.

Join us for upcoming webinars and exercise programs on the topic of arthritis: Self-Care in the Time of Covid-19 for People with Inflammatory Arthritis and more! For more information or to register, visit hsspped.eventbrite.com.

Visit the Health Video Library and the HSS YouTube Playlist for topics such as active and aging adults, bone health, pain and stress management, inflammatory arthritis, and more.

HSS Education Institute’s Public & Patient Education Department (PPED) offers programming on musculoskeletal conditions and other health and wellness topics for patients and the general public through community lectures, workshops, outreach programs, injury prevention programs, exercise classes, publications and digital programming.

HSS HealthConnection Fast Facts, produced by the PPED, is a convenient resource designed to provide the public with fast, current and accurate musculoskeletal and general health information.

The information provided in this blog by HSS and our affiliated physicians is for general informational and educational purposes, and should not be considered medical advice for any individual problem you may have. This information is not a substitute for the professional judgment of a qualified health care provider who is familiar with the unique facts about your condition and medical history. You should always consult your health care provider prior to starting any new treatment, or terminating or changing any ongoing treatment. Every post on this blog is the opinion of the author and may not reflect the official position of HSS. Please contact us if we can be helpful in answering any questions or to arrange for a visit or consult.