Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis: How They Differ

Posted by Kirkwood Johnston, MD on Jul 20, 2016, 8:30:00 AM

The most common types of arthritis – rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis – are alike in some ways but different in others. They have different causes and require different treatments, so it’s important to get an accurate diagnosis. 

Pain Is Common Denominator 

Both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis damage the joints between your bones. Both cause pain and stiffness, and they can limit your ability to do the things you need to do – and the things you do for fun.

Osteoarthritis is the most common. It is caused by years of wear and tear on your joints, eventually damaging the cartilage between your bones.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an immune system disorder in which the body releases enzymes that attacks the linings of the joints.


Learn the Difference

Here are some general guidelines to differentiating between rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.

When do symptoms appear?

Rheumatoid arthritis: Any age.

Osteoarthritis: In older people. 

What are the symptoms?

Rheumatoid arthritis: Painful, swollen and stiff joints.

Osteoarthritis: Painful joints that may be tender but have little or no swelling. 

How long does it take to develop?

Rheumatoid arthritis: Fairly quickly, just weeks to months.

Osteoarthritis: Slowly, over years of use. arthritis_toes-501951055.jpg

What is the pattern of symptoms?

Rheumatoid arthritis: Affects small and large joints on both sides of body. In fingers, usually found in middle joints and joints where fingers join hands.

Osteoarthritis: Usually starts on one side of body and may spread to the other. Often just in one set of joints, commonly the finger joints close to the fingernails, thumbs, hips, knees or spine.

How long does morning stiffness last?

Rheumatoid: More than an hour after getting out of bed.

Osteoarthritis: Less than an hour, usually no more than 20 minutes, but it comes back in the evening and after exercise. 

Is the rest of the body affected?

Rheumatoid: Often causes fatigue and a flu-like feeling.

Osteoarthritis: No whole body symptoms. 

If you’re having symptoms of arthritis, such as pain or stiffness in your joints, visit your doctor. You’ll likely need blood tests, and possibly imaging tests, to get to the root of the problem. But, as I said, an accurate diagnosis is key to effective treatment – and getting back to feeling at the top of your game. 

Do you have arthritis? How did you find out?


Dr. Johnston is a board-certified Rheumatology specialist at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic. His areas of clinical interest include arthritis, quality of life issues and vasculitis. He cares for his patients at Clear Lake Clinic, Downtown at The Shops, Main Campus and Pearland Clinic.



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