10 Differences Between Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis

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Not long ago a diagnosis of arthritis meant one thing: sore joints. We now know there are many different types of arthritis with different symptoms, treatments, and outcomes. Read ahead to learn the difference between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.


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Prevalence

Osteoarthritis is the most common cause of disability in the United States with more than 30 million adults living with the disease. Under the age of 45, men are more likely to have osteoarthritis, while over the age of 45, it is more common in women. Rheumatoid arthritis is much less common, with 1.5 million adults being affected. Women are two to three times as likely to be affected as men.


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Causes

Osteoarthritis may be associated with different risk factors. Age, gender, ethnicity, bone density, estrogen, nutrition, and genetics can each play a role in making us susceptible. Biomechanical factors such as obesity, joint injury, sports participation, and muscle weakness can then determine the location and severity. Rheumatoid arthritis is not yet fully understood, but the immune system plays a role in causing inflammation and joint damage. Genes, hormones, and environmental factors are involved.


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Age of onset

According to Arthritis Research & Therapy, rheumatoid arthritis is present in all ethnic populations and at all ages. Osteoarthritis affects people of all races and both sexes, but most often occurs in individuals age 40 and above, according to the American College of Rheumatology.


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Location of joint pain

The cause of rheumatoid arthritis is associated with the immune system. Small joints such as wrists, hands, and feet are affected, and it can (and often does) affect all joints, including those little-known joints. Because osteoarthritis is associated with joint wear, it commonly occurs in larger joints that get used a lot such as knees, hips, hands, and back. For example, the lifetime risk of developing knee osteoarthritis is 45 percent.


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Joint appearance

Joint swelling is associated with rheumatoid arthritis. Swelling in the joints in the hands is a common early finding, according to the Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center. Swelling in the wrists, elbows, knees, and ankles are other joints where swelling is easily seen. Osteoarthritis may present as a bony enlargement or you may not be able to see any changes to the joint without an X-ray.


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Morning joint stiffness

With rheumatoid arthritis, morning stiffness persisting more than one hour and often lasting several hours is characteristic. Individuals with osteoarthritis complain of morning stiffness but it may last only a few minutes.


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Symptoms besides joint pain

Ongoing high levels of inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis can cause problems throughout the body. Along with joint pain, many people with rheumatoid arthritis experience fatigue, loss of appetite, and a low-grade fever, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Rheumatoid arthritis can also cause systemic effects, which can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke. Because osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease of the cartilage of a joint, most of the discomfort is felt in the joint that is affected by the arthritis.


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Disease progression

Osteoarthritis can be limited to a single joint. In many cases it can progress to involve other joints according to the Arthritis Foundation. Because this type of arthritis involves the breakdown of the cartilage of the joint, the disease will steadily worsen without treatment. Rheumatoid arthritis can begin with the slow development of signs and symptoms over weeks to months. This may be followed by remission of the symptoms followed by an increase in disease activity that can come and go.


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What eases pain

There is no cure for arthritis but there are treatments available. For osteoarthritis, management of the disease may involve lifestyle factors, such as maintaining a healthy weight, exercising, and increasing joint flexibility. Pain medications may also be used and if necessary, joint surgery can repair severely damaged joints. For rheumatoid arthritis, the goal is to stop inflammation as quickly as possible and put the disease into remission.


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Medications

According to the Arthritis Foundation, there are different drugs used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can be used to ease the pain and inflammation. Corticosteroids can also be used to get inflammation under control. Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) can slow the course of the disease. Biologics can also be used to slow the disease. Medications for osteoarthritis are usually pain relievers, anti-inflammatory drugs, or corticosteroids.