• October 2, 2023
  • Dr Peter Landsberg

Last updated on October 2, 2023

Introduction to the Difference Between Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis

Understanding arthritis is crucial for effective diagnosis and treatment. In this blog post, we’ll explore two of the most common forms of this condition and answer the fundamental question: What is the difference between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis?

The Two Common Types: Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis

Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis are the most prevalent forms of arthritis. Both lead to painful joints and impaired mobility but stem from different causes and manifest in diverse ways. Accurate diagnosis is essential as the treatment for each varies considerably, including the kinds of medications that doctors may prescribe.

Osteoarthritis (OA)

OA is generally associated with ageing and wear and tear of the joints.


Osteoarthritis results from a combination of factors including:

  • Ageing process
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Obesity
  • Prior injuries
  • Mechanical stress leading to cartilage loss over time


Osteoarthritis symptoms may vary from person to person but generally involve issues related to mobility and comfort. These symptoms develop gradually over time, making early detection challenging. The most common symptoms include:

  • Joint pain
  • Morning stiffness
  • Decreased range of motion
  • Minor joint aches


Diagnosis involves a review of medical history, physical examinations, and imaging tests like X-rays or MRIs. X-rays can show the cartilage loss and the narrowing of space between bones in the affected joint, providing a clear diagnostic clue for OA.

Treatment Options

Treatment for OA primarily aims to manage symptoms and improve the affected joint’s function. While there is no cure for osteoarthritis, various treatment options can make life more comfortable and reduce pain. The most common treatment options include:

  • Pain Management: Over-the-counter pain relievers and prescription medications can alleviate discomfort.
  • Physical Therapy: Exercises to improve posture and strengthen muscles can help in supporting the affected joints.
  • Lifestyle Changes: Weight loss and low-impact exercises can reduce the mechanical wear on the joints.
  • Joint Injections: Corticosteroid injections offer temporary relief from pain.
  • Surgery: For severe cases, joint replacement or joint surgeries may be recommended.
What is the Difference Between OA And RA

What is the difference between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis? This image shows the differences between a healthy joint, one affected by OA, and another affected by RA.

Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)

RA is an autoimmune disease that can affect multiple joints and even cause systemic symptoms.


The exact cause remains unknown, but it’s primarily an autoimmune condition where the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues. This immune response leads to inflammation in the synovium—the lining of the membranes that surround the joints, causing painful swelling and potential joint deformity.


The symptoms of RA are more systemic and can significantly impact an individual’s overall health status. These symptoms can vary but are generally more severe than those of OA. The most common symptoms include:

  • Multiple joint pain
  • Morning stiffness
  • Systemic symptoms
  • Swelling
  • Rheumatoid nodules


RA is usually diagnosed based on the symptoms and confirmed through blood tests, such as the rheumatoid factor test and Anti-CCP antibodies. Imaging tests like X-rays or MRIs may also be used to assess the extent of joint damage.

Treatment Options

The primary goal of treating RA is to control the immune system’s adverse effects on the joints and prevent further damage. Treatment is usually more aggressive than that for OA, owing to the autoimmune nature of the disease. The most common treatment options are:

  • DMARDs (Disease-Modifying Anti-Rheumatic Drugs): These drugs are often the first line of treatment and aim to slow down the disease.
  • Biologic Agents: Target specific parts of the immune system to prevent joint and tissue damage.
  • Pain Relievers: Over-the-counter pain relievers may be used but are not a substitute for DMARDs or biologic agents.
  • Physical Therapy: Tailored exercise programs can improve mobility and decrease pain.
  • Surgery: In extreme cases where the joints have been severely damaged, surgical options like joint replacement may be considered.
What is the Difference Between OA And RA

What is the difference between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis? RA often comes with systemic symptoms like fever, fatigue, and weight loss, whereas OA generally tends to only affect the joints.

Key Differences Between OA and RA

While both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are forms of arthritis affecting the joints, understanding their distinct characteristics is crucial for proper diagnosis and treatment.

Onset and Progression

OA usually develops gradually over several years and predominantly affects older adults. RA can develop much quicker, affecting people of all ages, and can become severe in just a few months.

Affected Joints

OA typically impacts a few large, weight-bearing joints like the knees or hips. RA usually affects joints on both sides of the body and involves more joints, including the smaller ones like those in the hands and feet.

Underlying Causes

OA is mainly due to mechanical wear and tear, while RA is an autoimmune disease. The treatment and management strategies for each differ significantly based on these underlying causes.

Systemic Impact

RA often comes with systemic symptoms like fever, fatigue, and weight loss, affecting other organs as well. OA generally focuses on the affected joints, without systemic involvement.

Treatment Approach

Treatment of both OA and RA aims to reduce pain, but the treatment methods and medications differ. Osteoarthritis usually involves pain management and joint replacement surgeries, while rheumatoid arthritis treatment focuses on controlling the autoimmune response with medications.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How do I know if I have osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis?

Diagnosing whether you have osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis demands the expertise of a healthcare provider. While both conditions can lead to joint pain, they display key differences, such as the speed at which symptoms manifest, the risk factors involved, and whether an isolated joint or multiple joints are affected.

Which is worse – RA or OA?

Determining which is “worse” between RA and OA can be subjective, as both conditions can have a profound impact on your quality of life. Systemic symptoms suggest that rheumatoid arthritis affects you more broadly. However, OA can also be extremely debilitating, particularly when it comes to stiff joints and reduced mobility.

Can you have RA and OA at the same time?

Yes, although it’s relatively rare, it’s possible to have both RA and OA concurrently. Each condition presents its unique set of symptoms and necessitates a distinct treatment plan to reduce joint pain. If you suspect you have both, consult your healthcare provider for an accurate diagnosis and tailored treatment strategy.

Does osteoarthritis turn into rheumatoid arthritis?

No, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are two separate medical conditions and one does not transform into the other. They have different underlying causes and treatment modalities. OA is more of a common form of arthritis related to wear and tear, while RA is an autoimmune condition.

Dr Peter Landsberg

About The Author

Dr Peter Landsberg

Dr Peter Landsberg practices general Rheumatology with a special interest in inflammatory arthritis and connective tissue disorders. His holistic approach to medicine stems from the 12 years he spent as a GP before studying Rheumatology. On weekends you’ll find him trying (not always successfully) to stay upright on his mountain bike as he rides downhill tracks. Or out on Moreton Bay in his well-used tinnie, fishing with his family and the dog!

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