RA vs OA: This Ain't Your Grandfather's Arthritis

Patient Expert

Ask someone with rheumatoid arthritis to tell you about their biggest frustration and chances are they'll mention the misconception that RA is similar to osteoarthritis (OA). To help you educate those around you, HealthCentral's RA community will feature a trio of posts with information and stories that can help others understand. We'd like to thank Tiffany Westrich, the CEO and cofounder of the International Autoimmune Arthritis Movement, who will be working with us on this project. Today, she's writing about what it's like to live with RA.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease. In autoimmune diseases, the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue. In cases of RA, this causes inflammation in joints and tendons. RA is a chronic illness, there is no cure. We do not know what causes RA, but gingivitis, smoking and a particular bacteria in the gut are implicated in triggering the immune response that leads to the development of the disease.

Osteaoarthritis is a degenerative condition resulting from wear and tear on the cartilage in joints. Not everyone gets OA - the cause appears to be a combination of factors, including genetic predisposition to joint injury. There is no cure for OA.

RA is a systemic disease, affecting not just the joints, but also other systems in the body, including your organs, vascular system, and tendons. It also increases your risk of heart disease.

OA only affects joints. Because it is a result of wear and tear, it usually starts in one joint on one side of the body and spreads to other joints as more wear and tear happens.

RA usually develops between the ages of 30-50. Approximately 1.3 million people in the US have RA.

OA usually appears after age 45. The older you get, the more likely that you have some form of osteoarthritis. OA can also happen to younger people after an injury or related to obesity. By 2030, 67 million Americans are projected to have OA.

Almost 3 times as many women as men have RA. In women, the disease usually starts between the ages of 30-60, but tends to start later in men. On average, men also have more severe cases of RA.

OA also happens more often in women than in men in cases where the person is older than 45. It happens more often in men below the age of 45.

RA can occur in any joint, including the top and bottom joints in the spine, and even in the larynx.

OA typically affects weight-bearing joints in the body, such as knees and hips.

RA causes inflammation, swelling, tenderness and stiffness in joints. Other symptoms include flu-like symptoms, fatigue, fevers, nausea, nodules.

OA is not usually accompanied by swelling.

RA stiffness typically last 30 min. or longer after the person gets up in the morning, or start moving around after being an active.

OA stiffness lasts less than 30 min. after getting out of bed, or becoming active.

RA causes reduced energy levels.

OA usually does not affect a person's energy levels.

RA is treated with several different kinds of medication. NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, narcotic painkillers and DMARDs (disease modifying antirheumatic drugs), including steroids (tablets and injections in the joint), a type of chemotherapy and immunosuppressants such as the Biologics in, a class of drugs derived from living cells.

OA is usually treated with over-the-counter painkillers, prescription anti-inflammatories, narcotic painkillers and steroid and hyaluronan injections in the joint.

RA can cause damage requiring different kinds of surgeries, including joint replacements (hips, knees, ankles, shoulders, elbows, fingers).

OA can cause damage requiring joint replacements.

RA can usually, but not always, appears symmetrically on the body (i.e., both wrists, both ankles, both knees).

OA tends to start in one joint on one side of the body and gradually involve other joints as a person ages.

RA can develop and become quite severe and disabling in a relatively short time.

OA happens more slowly over many years.

This has been a general overview of some of the primary differences between RA and OA. There are more - feel free to contribute yours in the comment box! We hope it will be useful in helping you educate the people in your lives to create a better understanding of what you're going through.

See more helpful articles:

Arthritis Awareness: More Than 100 Types of Arthritis and Related Diseases

Top 10 Common Myths about RA – Busted!!

Understanding RA: Diagnosis, Pain, Medications, Side Effects

What Is the Difference between Mild, Moderate, and Severe Rheumatoid Arthritis?