What is the Difference between Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis?

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Difference in Osteoarthritis and RA
Osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) are the two most common forms of this debilitating disease.

In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) osteoarthritis affects an estimated 27 million Americans while a far smaller number—around 1.5 million—suffer from rheumatoid arthritis.

Both result in joint pain, stiffness and can eventually progress to the point of causing disability. Despite those similarities, these two diseases are very different from one another in many ways. Understanding these differences is important in making solid decisions about your treatment and care. Treatment is essential to slowing progression of arthritis as well as in maintaining or improving your quality of life. Here are the top 5 ways these forms of arthritis differ.

1. Underlying Causes

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease. Joint symptoms occur as the immune system attacks the body’s own tissues, including joint linings.

Osteoarthritis is the result of wear and tear on the joints. Symptoms are generally caused by a gradual deterioration in joint cartilage that occurs over a number of years. That deterioration is prompted by mechanical stress on the affected joints.

2. Age and Speed of Onset

Rheumatoid arthritis can begin at any age – even in children – and the onset of this autoimmune disorder is quite rapid. Symptoms can develop suddenly in RA, appearing over a period of weeks or months.

Osteoarthritis, on the other hand, generally begins later in life. Joint symptoms typically appear slowly and gradually over a period of several years.

3. Pattern of Joints Affected

Rheumatoid arthritis affects joints on both sides of the body, with symptoms often appearing in both hands, both elbows or both knees. It can move to different joints at different times. Additionally, in most cases, RA will begin in small joints first, such as the fingers, wrists or toes, then may spread to affect many joints throughout the body.

Osteoarthritis often affects joints on just one side of the body. While it can affect small joints, OA is much more common in large, weight bearing ones, such as hip or knee joints. OA does not spread like RA, typically affecting a very limited number of joints.

4. Symptoms

RA is an inflammatory form of arthritis, and joint symptoms typically include significant swelling and redness. Often, a feeling of warmth occurs in and around affected joints. This condition is also characterized by morning stiffness in affected joints that lasts more than an hour. Additionally, since RA is a result of autoimmune activity in the body, it often causes whole-body symptoms such as fatigue, fever and/or muscle pain.

Joints affected by OA may be achy and tender, but swelling is usually minimal if present at all. OA sufferers may experience morning stiffness in affected joints, but it generally eases with activity and lasts less than an hour. Stiffness may return later in the day or after activities. Symptoms in OA sufferers are localized – confined to the joints only.

5. Treatment

Rheumatoid arthritis is a more complex disease than osteoarthritis. Therefore, treatment tends to be more aggressive. Slowing or stopping the progressive damage done by autoimmune activity in the body is an essential part of RA treatment. This issue is commonly addressed with medications that may include disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) and/or immunosuppressant medications. NSAIDs, corticosteroids, topical preparations, joint injections and physical therapy may be used to relieve RA symptoms.

Osteoarthritis treatment may include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), corticosteroids and topical ointments or creams to reduce pain and inflammation. Joint injections may be administered to relieve symptoms, and physical therapy may be used to strengthen the muscles surrounding affected joints, which can increase joint support and decrease pain and stiffness. Joint replacement may be necessary for joints with severe osteoarthritis.

If you are experiencing any symptoms that you may believe could be related to any form of arthritis, it is important to discuss this with your physician. Your doctor may refer you to a specialist if necessary, who can help to diagnose your condition and give guidance to the best line of treatment for you.