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    Osteoarthritis vs Rheumatoid Arthritis: The Difference

    In this easy-to-understand guide, we'll help you figure out the differences between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. We'll highlight their unique traits and explain how to tell one from the other.

    july 10, 2023  |    4 Mins Read


    When it comes to joint problems, two names often pop up: osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Yes, both trouble your joints and can lead to discomfort and pain, but they are not the same. They have different causes, symptoms, and treatments.

    In this easy-to-understand guide, we'll help you figure out the differences between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. We'll highlight their unique traits and explain how to tell one from the other. By the end of this article, you'll have a clearer picture of these two common types of arthritis and how they affect the body.

    Osteoarthritis: A Degenerative Joint Disease

    Osteoarthritis, often referred to as "wear and tear" arthritis, is the most common form of arthritis. It primarily affects the joints, causing the protective cartilage that cushions the ends of bones to wear down over time. As a degenerative joint disease, osteoarthritis tends to develop gradually and is commonly associated with aging. However, it can also occur as a result of joint injury or excessive stress on the joints.

    Causes of Osteoarthritis

    The exact cause of osteoarthritis is still not fully understood. However, certain risk factors contribute to its development. These include:

    • Aging: As we age, the cartilage in our joints naturally deteriorates, increasing the risk of osteoarthritis.
    • Obesity: Excess weight puts additional stress on the joints, particularly in the hips, knees, and feet, leading to a higher likelihood of developing osteoarthritis.
    • Joint Injury: Previous joint injuries, such as fractures or ligament tears, can contribute to the development of osteoarthritis later in life.
    • Genetics: Some individuals may have a genetic predisposition to osteoarthritis, making them more susceptible to the condition.
    • Gender: Women are more likely to develop osteoarthritis than men.

    Symptoms of Osteoarthritis

    • Joint pain that worsens with activity and improves with rest.
    • Stiffness in the affected joints, especially after periods of inactivity.
    • Swelling and tenderness around the joints.
    • A grating sensation when moving the joint.
    • Limited range of motion.

    Rheumatoid Arthritis: An Autoimmune Disorder

    In contrast to osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder characterized by chronic inflammation in the joints. Unlike wear and tear arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis can affect people of any age, including children, and is more prevalent in women than in men.

    Causes of Rheumatoid Arthritis

    The exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis is unknown. However, it is believed to involve a combination of genetic and environmental factors. The immune system mistakenly attacks the synovium, a thin layer of tissue that lines the joints, causing inflammation. Over time, this inflammation can lead to damage and erosion of the joint cartilage and bone.

    Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis

    • Joint pain and swelling that are symmetrical (occur in the same joints on both sides of the body).
    • Morning stiffness that lasts for more than an hour.
    • Fatigue and general malaise.
    • Rheumatoid nodules (small lumps under the skin).
    • Joint deformity over time.

    Osteoarthritis vs Rheumatoid Arthritis: Which is Worse?

    Comparing osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) in terms of severity is challenging, as their progression and impact can differ. RA is more difficult to predict, while OA tends to have more predictable symptoms limited to the affected joints.

    Nevertheless, OA can still be debilitating. Both conditions cause disability and loss of function, but RA has treatments that can slow down the disease and achieve remission. In contrast, OA progresses over time and may require surgery in the future.

    Remission in RA refers to a period of few or no symptoms.

    Treatment Options: Osteoarthritis vs Rheumatoid Arthritis

    Osteoarthritis (OA) and Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) are two common types of arthritis, yet their treatment approaches differ significantly due to the nature of the diseases.

    Osteoarthritis Treatment

    Currently, there is no cure for OA. The focus of treatment is to manage symptoms and improve the quality of life. Treatment may include:

    1. Increasing physical activity: Regular exercise can help keep joints flexible and strengthen the muscles that support the joints.
    2. Physical therapy: Specific exercises can help strengthen the muscles around the affected joint and improve the range of motion.
    3. Weight loss: Carrying extra weight puts additional stress on weight-bearing joints, worsening OA symptoms.
    4. Medications: Over-the-counter pain relievers and prescription drugs can help manage pain and inflammation.
    5. Supportive devices: Crutches, canes, or braces can provide support and relieve pressure on the joints.
    6. Surgery: If other treatment options do not provide relief, surgical procedures like joint replacement or arthroscopy may be considered.

    Rheumatoid Arthritis Treatment

    RA is a chronic autoimmune condition without a cure. However, treatments can help manage symptoms and slow disease progression. Treatment may include:

    1. Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs): These medications can slow the progression of RA and save the joints and other tissues from permanent damage.
    2. Surgery: If medications fail to prevent or slow joint damage, surgery may be considered to repair damaged joints. This can restore your ability to use the joint, reduce pain, and improve function. Surgeries could involve:

    •  Synovectomy: Removes the inflamed joint lining (synovium) to reduce pain and improve flexibility.
    • Tendon repair: Fixes loosened or ruptured tendons around the joint caused by inflammation and joint damage.
    • Joint fusion: Stabilizes or realigns a joint, providing pain relief when joint replacement isn't an option.
    • Total joint replacement: This involves removing damaged parts of the joint and inserting a prosthesis made of metal and plastic.

    Both OA and RA require a personalized treatment plan, which should be developed in consultation with a healthcare provider.

    How Do I Know If I Have Osteoarthritis or Rheumatoid Arthritis?

    Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) typically exhibits symmetrical symptoms, where patients experience pain in the same joints on both sides of the body, commonly in the feet and hands. On the other hand, osteoarthritis (OA) usually starts in a single joint, such as the knee, fingers, hands, spine, or hips. Although both sides may be affected, one side tends to be more painful than the other.

    Can You Have Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis at the Same Time?

    Yes, it is possible for someone to have multiple forms of arthritis simultaneously. There are various types of arthritis, and identifying the specific type a person has can assist doctors in determining the most appropriate treatment approach.

    Furthermore, research suggests that individuals with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) are at a higher risk of developing osteoarthritis (OA) compared to those without RA. Therefore, implementing effective preventive strategies for OA is crucial for individuals with RA.

    Can Knee Sleeves Help with Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis?

    A 2019 study aimed to investigate the potential of knee sleeve braces in relieving pain and knee-related issues associated with early knee osteoarthritis. The findings indicated that knee sleeves can offer significant pain reduction and improved walking speed after six months of treatment. Additionally, this approach may also help slow down the progression of the disease.

    While knee braces have primarily been studied in individuals with osteoarthritis, those with rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory knee conditions may also experience similar benefits from wearing knee braces. Whether it is osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis, individuals commonly experience pain, swelling, muscle weakness, and impaired leg function. 

    According to Gillanders, a physical therapist at Point Performance Therapy in Bethesda, Maryland, the objective of knee bracing remains quite similar in both cases – providing stability, managing pain, reducing swelling, and addressing mechanical issues.

    Final Thoughts

    Knowing the difference between the two should be part of any patient's understanding if they suspect they have a medical condition relating to their joints and muscles. Even if you feel pain, it is important to get informed diagnoses in order to determine how best to proceed. If you experience symptoms consistent with either osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis, please reach out to your healthcare provider for further assistance.

    For additional support during treatment, consider the Koprez® Knee Compression Sleeve which can offer relief from stiffness and temporary pain while affording an extra layer of protection from everyday activities. Don't let arthritis prevent you from living a fully active life - with the right plan, you can enjoy a greater quality of life.


    • Barhum, L. (2022). Rheumatoid Arthritis vs. Osteoarthritis: What’s the Difference? CreakyJoints. Retrieved from https://creakyjoints.org/about-arthritis/rheumatoid-arthritis/ra-oa-whats-the-difference/
    • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). FAQs about Arthritis. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/basics/faqs.htm#:~:text=It%20is%20possible%20to%20have,doctor%20determine%20the%20best%20treatment.
    • Donvito, T. (2019). Knee Braces for Arthritis: When They Help and What to Look For. CreakyJoints. Retrieved from https://creakyjoints.org/living-with-arthritis/knee-braces-arthritis/#:~:text=Although%20knee%20braces%20probably%20can,engage%20in%20an%20exercise%20program.
    • Mayo Clinic Staff. (n.d.). Rheumatoid arthritis. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/rheumatoid-arthritis/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20353653
    • NHS. (n.d.). Causes Rheumatoid arthritis. Retrieved from https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/rheumatoid-arthritis/causes/#:~:text=Rheumatoid%20arthritis%20is%20an%20autoimmune,viruses%2C%20helping%20to%20fight%20infection.


    Claire Evans worked as the content marketing manager at Koprez. Claire combined a background of writing and editing, marketing, and patient education to best serve consumers, fitness enthusiasts, athletes, and anyone who relies on the Koprez brand for helpful information.

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