Human Tissue Sample Blog

Rheumatoid Arthritis vs Osteoarthritis, What's the Difference?

Posted by Quinton Stevens on Feb 7, 2017 5:00:00 AM




Many people have run across rheumatoid arthritis in their lifetime, from developing the disease, having a loved one or friend who develops it, or simply hearing an advertisement on television for some new medication designed to treat it. But many people do not fully understand what distinguishes RA from normal arthritis, and why that distinction makes RA arguably much worse than that of the more common and often age-related Osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is the variation that most often affects the elderly, though it is not confined to this role, and it is the damage resulting from cartilage in between bones wearing out and being ground away leaving bone-on-bone contact uninhibited by any form of cushioning. Rheumatoid Arthritis is a disease, one that can affect anyone but typically affects women and is not as confined by age.


Osteoarthritis affects 27 million Americans in some capacity, with a markedly higher rate of cases in women than men. Many of these individuals are over 60, but symptoms from Osteoarthritis can form in people as young as 20 or 30 if they have injuries or extreme wear and tear from heavy activity. It is formed from wear on the cartilage plating in between bone. Normally, healthy cartilage acts as a shock absorber, cushion, and aid in flexibility for joints. It helps with reducing the stresses of impact on joints and ligaments. Over time, the cartilage loses is elasticity and becomes rougher and more rigid, becoming a less effective means for absorbing shock.

The wear and tear it used to endure begins to erode it more rapidly, and it becomes smaller. This reduction in cartilage leads to straining of ligaments and eventually can lead to bone-on-bone rubbing during movement, causing pain, stiffness, soreness with over or under activity, joint swelling and bony enlargements on fingers.

How is Osteoarthritis treated?

Osteoarthritis treatment is in large part dependent on the actions of someone who has it. One of the most effective treatment methods is also counterintuitive at face value: keep moving. While this form of arthritis is riddled with activity-associated pain, light activity and exercise can greatly help mitigate the symptoms of Osteoarthritis. In fact, not doing some form of activity can worsen symptoms, so it is generally best to incorporate physical activity as part of treatment. Osteoarthritis is also treated by other means both therapeutic and medicinal. Therapy can be an extension of physical activity and consists of learning and training new ways of performing tasks to minimize joint strain. Medicinal treatment consists of pain and anti-inflammatory medications,

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid Arthritis is an autoimmune disease. This means that it is caused by the immune system misfiring against ‘friendly’ tissue, causing inflammation and other damage. Rheumatoid arthritis is inclined towards women but can affect anyone, and currently affects 1.5 million people in the US.

It oftentimes begins in the smaller joints, such as the fingers but as it progresses it moves into larger areas such as the knees, elbows, and hips. It is characterized by red, swollen joints that feel warmer than surrounding areas of the body and are markedly more sensitive in the mornings and after physical activity.

While considerably fewer people have RA than OA, Rheumatoid Arthritis can be considerably more severe than Osteoarthritis. While both do affect joints and often result in inflammation, Rheumatoid Arthritis can also affect other areas of the body, including outer areas of the body such as the skin and eyes and can cause problems to internal organs such as the kidneys and blood vessels.

Rheumatoid arthritis can cause permanent damage to joints if left untreated and can be more severe than osteoarthritis due to the plurality of its symptoms and autoimmune nature. It typically requires more resources from treatment to properly treat and can be more mentally and financially taxing in the process. However, it is not without hope and like many autoimmune diseases it can be brought into remission and left largely alone once stabilized, provided some existing treatment regimens stay in place.

How is Rheumatoid Arthritis treated?

Rheumatoid arthritis is treated from a different angle than Osteoarthritis, the goal is remission. Physical activity is still a paragon of good treatment, but it is not sufficient in and of itself. Doctors go to what is called “Treat to Target” approaches. Using this method, doctors act quickly to bring the disease into a manageable range of symptoms and remission, to prevent extreme and permanent joint damage the best they can. This achieved using an array of advanced medicines which ease the symptoms such as anti-inflammatory medicines. Drugs that slow disease progression are also used, these can be corticosteroids and the approach can be similar to how organ transplants are treated to avoid rejection, as both are suppressing the immune system from attacking beneficial tissue. More of a goal treatment, medications known as DMARDs (disease modifying antirheumatic drugs) are designed to alter the way the disease behaves. These drugs alter the way the body’s immune response is executed, in hopes that the immune response against friendly joint tissue will be halted. Lastly, if joint damage is extensive surgery can be employed to replace damaged joints, though this course of action is both rare and last resort. It is often done on the knees and hips but has been known to be used in other areas of the body if damage is severe enough.

To Conclude, What Sets Them Apart?

Osteoarthritis is by far the most common manifestation of arthritis, and it has its own pains and symptoms it brings, but Rheumatoid Arthritis is the significantly less common but considerably more devastating variant, requiring more time, energy, and resources to overcome.

Osteoarthritis is the result of wear and tear over time, and rarely affects anyone below 50 whereas Rheumatoid Arthritis is the result of autoimmunity and can affect anyone at any age, though generally only affecting older women.

Osteoarthritis treatment is fairly standardized, with consistent results, whereas RA treatments begin quickly but can have vastly different outcomes depending on the person, as each occurrence of the disease can be different from another.

Facts and sources:

Mayo Clinic Staff Print. "Rheumatoid Arthritis." Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 18 Mar. 2016. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.

"The Basics of Osteoarthritis." WebMD. WebMD, 2016. Web. 14 Oct. 2016.

Staff, By Mayo Clinic. "How Do Rheumatoid Arthritis and Osteoarthritis Differ?" Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 2016. Web. 14 Oct. 2016.

"Osteoarthritis Treatment." Osteoarthritis Treatment. Arthritis Foundation, 2016. Web. 14 Oct. 2016.

"Rheumatoid Arthritis Treatment." Rheumatoid Arthritis Treatment. Arthritis Foundation, 2016. Web. 14 Oct. 2016.

Topics: Autoimmune Diseases, Immunotherapy, Immunolgy