What is the difference between Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis?


What’s the difference between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis?

Arthritis is more common than you might think. For example, more than 46 million Americans1 – or 1 in every 6 – have some form of arthritis.

There are more than 200 different types of arthritis including little known diseases like Kawasaki disease, and Sweet's syndrome 2 Two of the most common types are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.


Researchers also believe that skeletal remains from humans living around 4500 B.C. show signs of the disease.



Osteoarthritis is the breakdown of cartilage – the flexible tissue that protects bone ends from rubbing against each other. Osteoarthritis is further characterized by the creation of bony spurs – or growths – due to bone “wear and tear.”3

Osteoarthritis affects only the joints and can affect many different joints,3 including the hand, knee, spine and hip.3 As well as causing pain and stiffness, osteoarthritis can also limit movement, as inflamed joints do not bend as far or as easily.3

Age is a major risk factor for this type of arthritis. Around 8 out of 10 adults over the age of 50 are affected in the UK.3 Other contributing factors are being overweight, stress to a joint from overuse or injury, and a family history of osteoarthritis.3

Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is an auto-immune disease. This basically means that the body’s immune system attacks its own healthy tissues, joints, and organs and treats them like invaders.

<illustration joint>

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory type of arthritis that causes the joint linings to become inflamed. Although only a few cells thick, the lining or Synovium acts like a protective wrapper to the joint and prevents unwanted bodies from entering the joint. Cells within the Synovium also produce substances that lubricate the joint. When these delicate linings become inflamed they thicken and become engorged with fluid. This causes the joint to swell and can cause, pain, stiffness, and possibly total loss of use of the joint.4

Rheumatoid arthritis tends to occur in matching joints on both sides of the body, although this may not occur at the same time .4 For example, rheumatoid arthritis may develop in both hands, both feet or both elbows.

Rheumatoid arthritis can also affect body parts besides the joints, such as the skin, nerves, tendons, muscles, eyes, heart, kidneys and lungs. Individuals with rheumatoid arthritis may also experience extreme fatigue.5

This type of arthritis affects more women than men. In fact, three quarters of people with rheumatoid arthritis are women.4 Despite much research, no single cause of rheumatoid arthritis has been found. Many scientists believe that there’s a link to genetics and family history associated with the development of rheumatoid arthritis, and that a specific trigger may bring on symptoms such as joint pain, stiffness and restricted movement.4

Only your doctor can diagnose your arthritis

There are many over-the-counter and prescription drugs, as well as other treatment options that can help treat arthritis, but first it’s important to determine the type. A blood test can rule out rheumatoid arthritis, and X-rays can show the extent of joint damage. If you think you or a family member have either osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis, it is important to consult your doctor.


  1. Arthritis Foundation. Available at http://www.arthritis.org/media/newsroom/media-kits/Arthritis_Prevalence.pdf
  2. Arthritis Care UK. Understanding Arthritis Booklet. June 2009
  3. Arthritis Care UK. Living with Osteoarthritis Booklet. November 2009
  4. Arthritis Care UK. Living with Rheumatoid Arthritis Booklet. April 2010
  5. Rheumatoid Arthritis. Medline Plus. Available at http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000431.htm