Rheumatoid Arthritis vs Osteoarthritis: What’s the Difference?


We’ve all heard the term “arthritis” – but did you know that it encompasses more than 100 joint diseases in 54 million adults in the United States*? The most common form of arthritis, osteoarthritis, affects nearly 21 million Americans.

[*source: The Arthritis Foundation]

Rheumatoid Arthritis: The Facts

Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disorder that impacts 1.5 million people in the United States. Patients with RA experience symptoms of joint pain, stiffness (especially in the morning, usually lasting for an hour or more), fatigue, low-grade fevers and aches. As the disease progresses, rheumatoid nodules (lumps) can also be found near the joints and individuals can experience increased mobility issues.

Autoimmune disorders occur when the body gets confused and begins to attack itself. In patients with RA, the body attacks the joints, causing fluid, swelling and inflammation. It can be very painful.

Rheumatoid arthritis is more common in women but occurs in both men and women at any age. It can also occur in children (juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, or JRA). A defining characteristic of RA is symmetric involvement – joints on both sides of the body will be affected at the same time. For example, in patients with RA, both knees will experience pain and swelling.

Rheumatologists don’t know exactly why some patients get RA, but there does seem to be a family link. Smoking is also a big risk factor for it. RA is diagnosed using a combination of clinical exam and tests that evaluate the patient’s inflammation levels and specific antibodies. Treatment options for RA include daily medications and/or injections to lower pain and inflammation, as well as to minimize possible joint damage.

Osteoarthritis: The Facts

As people age, they often experience osteoarthritis in one or more joints. Osteoarthritis is a degenerative, or wear-and-tear process, that affects the cartilage that cushions the joint. When this cartilage starts to break down, the bones begin to rub against each other, causing pain and degeneration. This disease is not driven by the immune system.

Risk factors for developing osteoarthritis include being overweight, overuse of a joint (for example, from playing sports in high school), prior injury, joint deformities or diabetes. Patients who have osteoarthritis experience stiffness and pain in joints, especially when moving around. Osteoarthritis pain is typically more severe on one side (especially over a joint that is used more often), which can help differentiate it from RA. Treatment can include medications for pain, physical therapy and steroid injections.

St. Elizabeth Physicians: Here to Help

St. Elizabeth Healthcare offers a full range of services and treatment options for all types of arthritis. If you are experiencing arthritis-like symptoms, the first step is to make an appointment with your primary care physician. He or she will evaluate your pain and determine next steps, including referring you to a rheumatologist if rheumatoid arthritis or another type of autoimmune disease is suspected. Call (859) 344-1900 to schedule your appointment today.