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The Difference Between Rheumatoid Arthritis vs. Osteoarthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis are similar conditions in many ways, but there are some vital differences between them.


In this article, we’ll explore the differences between rheumatoid arthritis vs osteoporosis, including the causes, symptoms, and risk factors of each. 

osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis

What are Osteoporosis and Rheumatoid Arthritis?


Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, affecting approximately 27 million Americans. It’s a degenerative joint disorder, which means it occurs due to deterioration over time. 


It involves chronic inflammation of bones and joints due to degenerative changes in cartilage. This means that as your cartilage breaks down with age, moving your joints becomes more painful. Osteoarthritis inflammation is one of the more painful effects of the disease.


Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder, which means the immune system mistakenly attacks non-threatening elements of the body. It sees the material surrounding your joints as a threat, so it attacks and breaks it down. As a result, fluid builds up in the joints, causing swelling, pain, stiffness, and inflammation. 


Roughly 1.3 million Americans have rheumatoid arthritis.


What Causes Rheumatoid Arthritis and Osteoarthritis?


The causes behind these conditions are perhaps their greatest difference.


Osteoarthritis is caused by the gradual breakdown of cartilage at the end of your bones. Cartilage helps lubricate your joints so that your fingers, wrists, hands, knees, ankles, etc. have a wide range of movement.


As the cartilage breaks down, bone begins to rub against bone. This causes severe pain, stiffness, and other symptoms brought about by osteoporosis. 


Rheumatoid arthritis, on the other hand, is an autoimmune disorder. This condition is caused by a specific disease rather than the passage of time. Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent the onset of rheumatoid arthritis. However, certain groups and behaviors carry a higher risk than others, as described below. 


Common Osteoarthritis Symptoms


Both osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis share several symptoms, despite being entirely different conditions. 


Osteoarthritis symptoms develop slowly over time. Since this disease is not symmetrical, you may notice that one side of your body is experiencing stronger symptoms than the others.


People with osteoarthritis commonly notice symptoms in the hands and fingers, as well as the knees, spine, and hips. 


Notable osteoarthritis symptoms include: 


  • Pain in the hands, knees, hips, and/or spine

  • Stiffness in joints (usually after periods of inactivity, i.e. just waking up or getting up from a long period of sitting)

  • Popping and cracking sounds

  • Swelling and inflammation around joints

  • A loss of flexibility

  • Joint pain, including a grating sensation

  • Bone spurs (extra bits of bone that can form around the affected joint)


Common Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms


Rheumatoid arthritis is a systematic condition, which means it can affect other areas of your body including your eyes, heart, and lungs. 


Most commonly, however, it affects the joints. It often begins in the smaller joints. You may notice pain, stiffness, and swelling in your fingers at the early stages.  


As it develops, you may notice symptoms in ankles, knees, and shoulders. Unlike osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis is symmetrical, so you’ll notice it affects both sides of your body simultaneously. 


Some of the most common symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis overlap with osteoarthritis, including:


  • Stiff joints

  • Joint pain

  • Limited flexibility/range of motion

  • Symptoms feel worse first thing in the morning


Some symptoms that are unique to rheumatoid arthritis (and not osteoarthritis) include:


  • Fever (this is especially common in children with rheumatoid arthritis)

  • Fatigue

  • Muscle aches

  • Lumps under the skin near joints (known as rheumatoid nodules)


Rheumatoid Arthritis vs. Osteoarthritis: What Are the Risk Factors?


What might make you more at risk of developing osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis?


There are many commonalities in risk factors for rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. Women are more likely to develop both conditions, as are people who are more advanced in age


Similarly, both conditions tend to run in the family. If you have a relative with either condition, this puts you at a higher risk compared to someone with no family history.


Obesity is another common risk factor for both conditions. The more stress put on weight-bearing joints like hips and knees will increase the risk of developing arthritis. Since fat tissue produces proteins that can cause joint inflammation, obesity is an especially potent risk factor.


Additionally, any previous issue concerning the joints can increase the chances of developing either condition. This includes repetitive motions or stresses tied to work or athletics, as well as any injuries or deformities involving the joints.


Some risk factors unique to rheumatoid arthritis include gout and diabetes.


Seek a Diagnosis if Experiencing Symptoms


If you are a member of the above risk factors and experiencing symptoms related to either rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis, speak to a doctor about obtaining a diagnosis. Treatment options exist for both diseases, but the correct treatment depends upon which condition you have. 


While there is no cure for either condition, you can find ways to manage symptoms and reduce the pain. Speak to a medical professional to learn more about the best options for you.

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