What is the difference between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis?

Although people often think of arthritis as a single condition, it isn’t one disease. In fact, there are more than 100 kinds of arthritis. Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common, affecting 27 million Americans. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is second, affecting 1.3 million. Both conditions damage the joints, causing pain and stiffness.

OA and RA can be very distinct in terms of symptoms and diagnosis. Here are some of the ways that they differ:


Rheumatoid arthritis

Usually affects weight-bearing joints.

Usually affects both weight- and non-weight-bearing joints.

Caused by “wear and tear.”

Caused by the immune system, setting off a situation where body “attacks” joints, making them inflamed.

Mostly affects people over age 60.

Can affect people of any age but is most common among people 20 to 50 years old.

Not inflammatory.


Typically affects only joints.

Symptoms often felt throughout body (systemic) in addition to joints.

Asymmetrical; may affect spine, hands, feet, knees, and hips, but not necessarily on both sides of the body.

Symmetrical; usually affects small and large joints on both sidesof the body.

Stiffness lasts 20 to 30 minutes in the morning.

Stiffness lasts for hours to a full day.

Some fluid build-up in joints.

Significant fluid build-up in joints.

Commonly found in both men and women.

Affects more women than men.

Laboratory tests less helpful.

Laboratory tests very helpful.

X-rays and scans may show signs of joint damage.

X-rays and scans may or may not show swollen tissue around joints.

Most often treated with pain-relieving medications, physical therapy, mobility aids, and sometimes, ultimately, joint replacement surgery.

Use of “disease-modifying” medications to alter or stop progression, as well as pain-relieving medications. Exercise may be limited, mobility aids used, and joint replacement surgery necessary.


Treatments for OA and RA can differ and vary from person to person. Getting the right diagnosis, then, is very important. Your primary health care provider will diagnose your arthritis and set up a plan for treatment. Depending on the severity of your pain symptoms and how they respond to initial treatments, your provider may refer you to a specialist. A rheumatologist is a physician who specializes in the diagnosis and nonsurgical treatment of arthritis and other conditions affecting the joints, muscles, and bones.

Be sure to stay in close contact with your health care providers. Keep them updated on how you’re feeling and if your symptoms are improving or worsening. And don’t be afraid to ask questions or bring up concerns. By becoming an active partner in your health care, you can help your health care team put together the most effective treatment plan for your type of arthritis.