Osteoarthritis Vs Rheumatoid Arthritis: What’s the Difference?

Osteoarthritis Vs Rheumatoid Arthritis: What’s the Difference?

‘Arthritis’ is a common phrase used to describe pain, swelling and inflammation of the joints, but it doesn’t refer to a single disease. It is thought to affect approximately 10 million people in the UK; many sufferers are of the older generation but arthritis can even affect children and teenagers.

Osteoarthritis (OA) and Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) are two well-known conditions and both sit under the umbrella term of arthritis. However, despite both conditions affecting the joints, the two diseases demonstrate some very significant differences.

Osteoarthritis: A Degenerative Joint Disease

Osteoarthritis is, by far, the most common type of arthritis, affecting almost 8.75 million people in the UK and more than 30 million people in the United States. It is a degenerative joint disease, which starts with the roughening of joint cartilage (the protective cushioning situated between your bones).

In the early stages, OA can occur without causing any symptoms. However, the gradual loss of joint cartilage can expose nerves and eventually lead to bones rubbing together, which can be deeply painful. Mild inflammation may also occur.

Osteoarthritis affects women more than men, and is more common in people age 45 and above. It typically occurs in a single joint initially and most commonly affects the hands, hips, knees and back.

Rheumatoid Arthritis: An Autoimmune Disease

Rheumatoid Arthritis, an autoimmune condition, is a less common type of arthritis. The immune system is the body’s first line of defence against illness and infections. When an individual is affected by an autoimmune disorder, the immune system wrongly attacks the healthy tissues of the body as it would a virus or bacteria. It primarily targets the joint lining and causing chronic inflammation. Several joints can be affected, and RA can even affect the body’s organs in some of the more serious cases.

Inflammation is a vital tool in a healthy immune response, when the immune system is working as it should. Extra fluids and blood are rushed to the specific area - such as the site of a wound - to assist in fighting an infection. In some cases, the skin surrounding a wound may turn a different colour and become swollen due to inflammation.

With RA, extra fluid and inflammation of the joints can lead to pain and mobility problems, or even lead to permanent joint damage. The disorder often begins in the hands and feet, and can build up gradually or start quite aggressively. RA can also affect adults of any age but the onset of the disease is most common in those between the ages of 40 and 60. Women are 2-3x more likely to suffer from rheumatoid arthritis than men.


There are some symptoms which are comparable with Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis, although each disorder also has numerous distinct symptoms.

Some of the most common symptoms of OA include:

  • Pain, stiffness and tenderness of the joints, especially in the morning but this tends to wear off after 30 minutes of getting up
  • Difficulty moving the affected joints
  • Joints that are larger in appearance or have bony enlargements
  • Muscle weakness and wasting
  • Affected joints make a ‘crackling’ sound
  • Prolonged inactivity can worsen the affected joint in terms of swelling and stiffness

With osteoarthritis, the symptoms may come and go, but can be continuous in more severe cases. Symptoms can also be linked to your activity levels.

Similarly, RA can result in difficulty moving the joint and cause pain and swelling. Other symptoms can include:

  • Morning swelling and stiffness that lasts for longer periods than OA
  • Worse pain after periods of inactivity
  • Joints affected symmetrically (both sides of the body at once)
  • Fatigue and lack of energy
  • A poor appetite
  • Weight loss

What are the Risk Factors?

Both OA and RA are more likely to occur in women than men, and are more common with older adults. However, RA can develop fairly quickly at any age, whereas OA is more likely to develop very gradually later in life.

RA can be a genetic disorder and you may be at a higher risk of developing this type of arthritis if a close family member has it.

The risk factors for OA can include:

  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Joint overuse
  • Deformities of the joint(s)
  • Traumatic injuries that have affected the joint(s)

Remedies and Treatments

Keeping up an active lifestyle is important in managing both OA and RA, as this helps you to maintain a healthy weight and reduce any extra pressure on the joints. Regular exercise will also strengthen the muscles that surround the joints, helping to keep them stable and supported.

Over-the-counter painkillers and prescription painkillers can help reduce symptoms of both types of arthritis and enable you to keep active. These may be paracetamol, Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) or opioids such as codeine.

Many sufferers opt for natural pain relief such as CBD oil which has both pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory properties and can alleviate symptoms of both OA and RA. CBD oil can be taken orally or CBD balms and anti-inflammatory creams can be applied topically to the affected area. It is non-intoxicating, available over the counter and completely legal in the UK.

For Rheumatoid Arthritis, medicines called Disease-Modifying Anti-Rheumatic Drugs (DMARDs) are available that can reduce symptoms in the joints by slowing down the over-active immune system.

In cases of severe Osteoarthritis, your GP may discuss the option of a joint replacement, which is a highly successful surgical procedure.

Is it Possible to Have Both Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Yes, it is possible to suffer from both RA and OA. RA can develop early on in life as a result of injuries or damage to the joints or cartilage. Those who suffer with RA may go one develop OA as they age.

However, with the right action and support, including an active lifestyle, nutritious diet and medication, it is possible to lead a healthy life with both types of arthritis and lower the risk of either condition from worsening over time.

Further Reading: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41419-020-02892-1


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