The Difference Between Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis
What is the difference between Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis?
Sometimes, you can show how much you care by sharing what you know. But, other times, you can show how much you care by acknowledging what you don’t know.
A good friend asked me this week to explain the difference between Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) and arthritis /Osteoarthritis (OA). I was really impressed with her. It took courage to admit she that did not know. Do you know how many people have asked me that? She is the first one.
How many people do I hear ask, “What is Rheumatoid Arthritis anyway?” Very, very few. They usually don’t already know. So, I wonder why they don’t ask.
So here is my short answer to the RA versus OA comparison:
If you have a favorite tool and you use it a lot, it can start to get rusty and worn. That’s OA. You can sometimes clean it up with chemicals or a salt scrub. That’s like getting arthroscopic surgery done to clean up a knee.
Think of Osteoarthritis like rust
Who does generic osteoarthritis strike? The most simple answer is anyone who has used a joint excessively: mainly that means old joints and athletes.
Rheumatoid Arthritis is more complicated than osteoarthritis
It would be a bit more like leaving a brand new tool in a bucket of battery acid overnight. It is suddenly ruined. You better buy a new one.
That is the sudden destruction and disability of Rheumatoid Arthritis. Joints and their supporting tissues are suddenly destroyed and left disabled. Little holes in the bone called erosions tell the story of some erosive substance which has eaten away the flesh. And once it begins, the destruction continues.
The joints cannot be cleaned out on an outpatient visit. Frequently, joints must just be replaced.
Where does Rheumatoid Arthritis strike?
Joints, organs, nerves, muscles, tendons, and bones in children, women, and men of all ages, but most frequently between 30 and 50.
Thank you to my friend for asking that very basic question. I am grateful that she gave me permission to share, so I tried to give a simple answer. With a short answer, perhaps more folks will be able to understand.
For a more complete answer, stay tuned to Rheumatoid Arthritis Warrior. I know that my friend will because she cares. I know she cares because she told me what she did not know.
- Is There a Typical Rheumatoid Arthritis
- American College of Rheumatology Redefines Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Ankylosing Spondylitis and Rheumatoid Arthritis
41 thoughts on “The Difference Between Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis”
great post kelly! thanks for sharing it! i think we all have had a lot of "knowledgeless" comments come our way. i'm glad your friend asked. glad you're on facebook! a friend of mine became a fan of your page. angie
It's fun. Hope we can attract a lot of non-RAers, too!!
Wow, Kelly. What a fantastic post. You have such a talent for composing and explaining information that we all can use (as education for ourselves, and to educate others who do not have RA). Thank you so much. Noelle
Wish we could get everyone to read it!
So it's battery acid in my joints. Now I know why they hurt so much! 🙂
Thanks for the short, easy to understand description. You're correct, most people lump all arthrides together.
yep, you better see a mechanic…
Kidding – haha – word picture of course. 😀
Question– can a person have RA withour OA? I have both.
Good question, Dazey girl. 😀
Hmmm, I understand that we need to tell people about RA, and this is an RA site. That’s cool.
I’d modify your explainations a bit. My OA has caused me to have joints replaced and I am neither an athlete nor am I OLD. My joints sprouted spurs and erroded in my 40’s. I have no idea why. It’s a different pain than RA but dealing with joint replacement was no less traumatic.
That said, I also give a quickie description of the differences between OA and RA, but it seems that no matter how short and sweet I make it most people are nodding their heads with understanding before the words are out of my mouth. Telling them that I have both usually causes a raised eyebrow and sometimes I think I hear the wheels in their heads whispering, “drama queen”. And my imagination is picturing my knobby finger making a certain gesture – you know the one.
Lana, I just went back to see what I’d written since this was a just a little analogy I wrote a while ago for those who’d never heard of RA. I did write “mainly in old people and athletes.” If I were doing a research post on OA, I’d mention the less common causes other than “wear & tear” such as inflammatory diseases and hormone disorders or genetic defects. There’s infinitely more info available on OA and basically everyone gets OA – it’s just a matter of time. Did you know there are some hearings about it tomorrow on Capitol Hill again? It does get all of the attention and the money because everybody gets it, so “everybody gets it.”
This post was in no way meant to say that OA is not important, especially to those unusual cases like you who get a degenerative form of arthritis during youth. This is actually more common with RA and may even have contributed to your situation. By the way, I have lots of OA myself and my bone spurs started when I was 15. Docs say the RA kicked it off.
Thanks, I hope it didn’t sound like I was “gesturing” anyone here! I don’t even use “the gesture” in real life. I think your rust analogy applies to my brain as much as my joints.
I just discovered the blog a few days ago and I’ve been reading like crazy to catch up. It’s great, but I don’t know how you manage to get so much done! Thanks for taking time to answer my post.
Lana, Thanks for giving me grace on that. I have kind of a screwy sense of humor and no one can see the look on my face while they are reading. No offense taken or intended.
I’ve got both RA and Osteoarthritis in my knees! I got Osteo after operations on both knees. Then 2 years later, I got RA. The creaking and popping is the Osteo. The leftover Bursitis is RA.
I am 51 and have had RA for 47 years and Osteoarthritis for 25 years and I still have trouble explaining the difference pain-wise to people who ask. Maybe I just can’t differentiate anymore. Anyone have a good way to explain?
I love your way with words… i will use this if ever iam asked the question, sadly my time has not come as everyone has a touch of ra with me so far…
thank you for this, I posted it on my wall. it is so frustrating at times dealing with people who just don’t understand or minimize RA as if we are exaggerating what is happening to our bodies.
One thing I usually do is tell people that there are over 100 different kinds of arthritis. That seems to be news to almost everyone and I think it’s something we need to get out there. Leaning that there are many kinds of arthritis sort of sets the stage for people to be open minded to the idea that RA might not be what they thought it was.
It wouldn’t surprise me if someday it was discovered that people like me, who had OA at a young age and then developed RA, actually have a kind of arthritis that isn’t recognized at this time.
That sounds like a good approach.
Lana, there are “familial” forms of OA, and subtypes of OA, including “erosive OA” but the erosions are a bit different from RA erosions. There are primary/idiopathic OA, and Secondary OA. There is “generalized primary OA” that hits several areas in people who get that. I’m just delving into some of that too as OA seems to run on one side of my family at earlier ages, thirties for some, but gets much worse in older age. I have some signs of the generalized primary, but not the nodules on the dip and pip joints in the hands. And although my wrists are destroyed from RA, my fingers are only barely affected, go figure. Not sure what’s protected them this long, although my thumbs are either OA or RA, the other finger joints and knuckles aren’t too bad except for some tendon stretching and a bit of swelling. I know I read one paper that hypothesized that RA is like an early onset form of OA, and in some ways that’s true as RA is like an early form of aging due to something called telomere shortening which happens with aging. My aunts seem to have OA and they think that my RA at thirty years younger can’t be any worse than what they have. Try chiropracters, magnets and biofreeze they tell me!
Well bless your aunts’ hearts. 😉 Yes, the accelerated aging and the RA activity itself – a lovely combination that does not respond to magnets or cherries. A good chiro would be cautious about touching anyone w/ RA unless it’s mild RA. I consulted w/ the best in the area & was told *never* to be adjusted. Too dangerous since RA affects the (cervical) spine of 87% of RA’ers. My fingers were like that too & it puzzled me, but not anymore.
Why doesn’t the finger question puzzle you anymore? I found one paper that might explain mine, and that has to do with the way in which my wrists have “collapsed” seemed to have a protective effect, but said that only seemed to be protective for about 5 years. I’m past that point, so we’ll have to see. I don’t think that would effect how the OA would effect the fingers though.
I agree about the chiro and RA in terms of cervical spine. My cervical is apparently OA, but I’m still not sure I want to mess with that risk anyway. From what I hear these days, the chiro students are now learning about and pushing “anti-inflammatory diets”. That though, might be worth looking into, but only as an ancillary to the drugs. I just can’t believe my aunt still wears and sleeps with all her magnets! By the way, she just told me my cousin has Fibro. and is sure that’s what she’s got because she has all the trigger points. I didn’t even try to go into a discussion of that with her.
I meant I wasn’t puzzled about NOT having my fingers badly affected any more because they ARE bad now. I was being facetious.
I have tried the anti-inflamatory diet and I think it does help. It basically is based on the idea that sugar is the source of inflamation, which is something I have heard Dr. Christianne Northrup also say.
My fingers and thumbs are a mess due to osteo, so I’m the opposite of you both. I have one ancestor known to have gnarled hands, I wish I knew more about my DNA.
OA is basically what ppl think it is…RA is like if your son or daughter walked in the house late at night and you thought he/she was an intruder, and attacked them. Your body loses the ability to tell the difference b/w an intruder aka something bad in your body, and your children – aka your joints. Oh yeah and by the way, your organs, tissue, and just about everything in your body….So I guess it’s like attacking everyone who walks in the door. Which you may as well do b/c you will lose many friends anyhow…
I figured that was probably it, but you know how it goes in cyberspace.
I am emailing this to all my friends who think all Arthritis is the same! Every time someone says, “I have Arthritis too”, I feel like saying its not the same. And to some of my close friends I do say that. Thanks for the explanation! Awesome post!
Kelly you hit the nail on the head with this one! This is an excellent way to explain RA to people who don’t understand what it is. It makes it less frustrating trying to explain RA. People understand tools and their destruction better than how RA affects the body.
Thank you Ericka. 🙂
I am 51 (a young 51) not an athlete. I have developed deformed finger joints in my left hand and my right hand is beginning to deform as well. The deformed joints are the joints closest to my finger nails. The research I read says that this is OA. The rheumatolgist I have been to says it is OA. Your post helped me because my deformity was very quick. Have you heard of RA being the joints similar to mine? I am thinking a 2nd opinion would be good.
Thanks for all of your hard work.
Dear Polly, do a search on this site for DIP and “distal interphalangeal” joint. There are some doctors and some books that state wrongly that RA cannot affect these joints. I have had mine attacked early on so I did a lot of research on this. Part of that is that I have heard from many other patients that it is. Plus I finally had good doctos who scoffed at the silly myth instead of scoffing at my fingers. If you don’t find what you need, please ask again. Take care.
RA affects my DIP joints as well. For me, most of the pain and stiffness in my hands are in my DIP and PIP joints. For some reason, my MCP joints don’t bother me as much. They do every once and a while but not nearly as much as the PIP and DIP joints.
It wasn’t too long until RA started marching around and affecting my toes, knees, ankles, hips, neck and shoulders in various combinations.
I suppose your symptoms could be early RA as my RA symptoms started in my fingers, but I’m no doctor and there are other things that cause joint damage.
If I were you I’d follow up with the doc and maybe get some blood tests for RA. I’d also ask for an explanation for the diagnosis of OA over some other condition.
My Late Mother Gertrude Constance ( Andersen ) Williams had the crippling RHEUMATOID ARTHRITIS. Me, my ARTHRITIS has come in many different forms: First it was OSTEOPENIA,then came OSTEOPOROSIS, then came OSTEOARTHRITIS, and now with my FINGERS and HANDS, and RIGHT HIP it is now RHEUMATOID ARTHRITIS.My pain is mostly NEAUROPATHIC and taking GABAPENTIN, 100 mg capsule at BEDTTIME. I’m also a BREAST CANCER SURVIVOR and we required to take ARIMIDEX 1mg tab and the last pill was on JUNE 30th, 2011. This medication was causing HAVOC with my BONE HEALTH, and have to try and have HEALTHY BONES, again. I’m waiting to go to a RA DOCTOR. SLM
I did a charity bike ride for the Arthritis Foundation last fall and met a woman in her 40s who walked with a cane, had deformed joints, and was in a lot of pain. Talking to her, it turned out she didn’t have rheumatoid (like I do) but severe osteoarthritis. I hate the comparison game…any arthritis hurts and mild (or treated, controlled) rheumatoid might not be nearly as bad as someone else’s osteo. What sucks is that any of us have any arthritis at all. And I’ve found that saying “autoimmune arthritis” means people have a bit more awareness, it’s a word that they know more than “rheumatoid.”
What a great analogy Kelly!! I actually had a couple of family members ask me the difference between RA and OA just recently. I’ve had it for 19 years & have developed secondary OA in my hips, knee and shoulders, & I’ve found that people are slowly becoming more aware of how these things affect us or are at least asking more about it in order to learn. I’ve noticed that since its affected me more and more, people ask more.
Great way of describing it!
My husband has RA, I have Fybro. My mother was a true “warrior” She was rx’d with RA at 33 yrs old. I watched her suffer daily, but never give up. She had both knee replacements done at the same time. Then ended up with staph infection in both of them. Spent 6 weeks in hospital on IV vanco and cipro. Came home on Cipro for an undetermined amount of time. Eventually ended up removing the totally infected prosthesis and spent 12 more weeks in the hosptal. Never gave up. That all happened in 1991. My Mom was so thrilled to be able to drive again-we did a role reversal where I taught her how to drive. She started declining further in health and ended up in a nursing home for 3 weeks and suddenly had a major stroke and went home to the Lord at the age of 66. My Mom was a fighter–never gave up.
I came across ur site and I find all the information very informative. I was just recently diagnosed with RA and there is a great deal of damage that is done to my left hip. I have my days like most where they are good but then there are multiple days in a row where there is fever and severe joint pain. I truly don’t think anyone can understand RA and what it is like unless they have it. It hurts when you try to explain what’s going on and they just say ur faking to get disability. I would rather work two jobs and struggle the rest of my life than have RA.
me too Angela. I did not willingly stop working so hard. & I agree it’s impossible to convince some people of that.
I have had 2 hips and one shoulder replaced in the last 12 months after a very active and healthy, no problem life. I could feel the 2nd shoulder going the same way and was getting worried that it would rapidly deteriorate also. I came out of hospital today after a week of tests but still not fully understanding what has been happening to me. I had my first methotrexate this evening and then started looking online for information. I found your site and the explanation about differences between the Osteo and rheumatoid arthritis. It has been so helpful – thank you. I shall keep referring to your site.
I am very saddened to read your description of osteoarthritis – you make it sound as though it is expected eventually or deserved by those who overuse or neglect their joints. I have read your blog on and off over the last couple years… As I am fighting my own battle with joint and muscle pain… And till now I was uplifted by your honest descriptions. I have no official DX… And I have given ip till I get worse, but due to a bone spur on my left knee it was suggested I have osteo, (plus bilateral bakers cysts and miseral MCP joints, cartilage loss, etc) I just turned 50 and have taken excellent care of myself- no family history of osteoarthritis – whatever it is it’s ruining my neck low back knees elbows wrists feet and hands… With burst blood vessels surrounding knees and ankles that never go away— and I should accept that if this is early osteo, it’s MY fault. I overused them all! Where are all the other 50 year old people who are suffering? Surely I cannot be the only overachiever who managed to wear themself out in 50 years!!!
Hi every one , since around August 2015 , my neck out of nowhere just started cracking all the time and was achy whenever I moved it , even just blow drying my hair my neck would ache , then my hands started hurting at nite , I would wake up and my hands hurt and my joints would be like frozen and achy and I couldn’t open them every morning and nite , I went walking and came home and for two days my hips and legs hurt , when I wake up in the morning or sit too long I have a hard time walking , my feet and legs feel achy and I have a hard time walking , I haven’t been diagnosed with anything yet , working on that , does anyone have thoughts on this or does it sound like RA ? Thoughts please. Ty