What is the Difference between Osteoarthritis & Rheumatoid Arthritis?

There are several different types of Arthritis. Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are two of the most common forms. Although the symptoms of these two types of arthritis can be similar, it’s very important to distinguish between them in order to determine the proper treatment. 

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Osteoarthritis occurs when the smooth cartilage joint surface wears out. Osteoarthritis usually begins in an isolated joint. 

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, which means that the immune system malfunctions and attacks the body instead of intruders. In this case, it attacks the synovial membrane that encases and protects the joints. Rheumatoid arthritis often targets several joints at one time. The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include: 

  • The symmetrical nature of the disease (arthritis in both hips, for example),
  • Fever
  • Anemia
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite

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Osteoarthritis (Degenerative Arthritis)

Osteoarthritis is a non-inflammatory disease that causes cartilage — the spongy substance that cushions the space between bones — to deteriorate. 

Osteoarthritis is sometimes referred to as degenerative arthritis or degenerative joint disease. It is the most common type of arthritis because it’s often caused by the wear and tear on a joint over a lifetime. It is most often found in the hands, knees, hips and spine. In the hand, osteoarthritis most often affects the small joints of the fingers and the joint at the base of the thumb.

Factors that contribute to osteoarthritis include: heredity, obesity, joint overuse and injury. Patients who already have rheumatoid arthritis  are more likely to develop osteoarthritis. Learn more about the difference between rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.

Symptoms of Osteoarthritis

Some of the symptoms of osteoarthritis overlap with rheumatoid arthritis, so it is important to schedule a consultation with a rheumatologist who can diagnose your condition correctly.  Common symptoms of osteoarthritis include: 

  • Pain: For some people, the pain may come and go. Constant pain or pain while sleeping may be a sign that the arthritis is getting worse. 
  • Stiffness after a period of not moving, such as in the morning or after sitting for a long time 
  • Muscle weakness around the arthritic joint, especially for arthritis in the knee
  • Swelling: When osteoarthritis causes swelling in joints, they will feel tender and sore.
  • Deformed joints: As osteoarthritis progresses, joints may begin to look crooked or misshapen.
  • Reduced range of motion 
  • Cracking and creaking

Treatment for Osteoarthritis

Considerations for treating osteoarthritis are identified on an case-by-case basis. Every case is unique, but the main categories for treatment are medication, lifestyle changes, physical therapy and surgery. 

  • Medication: Medications include topical creams, acetaminophen, NSAIDs (e.g. Advil or Motrin), glucosamine, analgesics or opioids and cortisone injections. These will be administered by your doctor, depending on a number of factors, including your current medications and pain level.  
  • Lifestyle Changes: Lifestyle changes such as losing weight and exercising can help you live with osteoarthritis more successfully. Your doctor will give you advice about what to change in your daily activities. 
  • Physical Therapy: Physical therapy focuses on strengthening the muscles around an affected joint. It also involves learning how to cope with the disease, finding ways to avoid putting further stress arthritic joints through the use of walking aides or techniques such as splinting. Pain management and stress management classes can also help patients who suffer from arthritis.
  • Surgery: The main goal of surgery is to relieve pain and, when possible, prevent progressive weakness and deformity. We perform three types of surgery for joints affected by arthritis:
    • Fusion (arthrodesis): An operation to make the bones on each side of a joint grow together. Fusion can be very helpful for joints that are stiff and painful, awkwardly crooked, or unstable.
    • Arthroplasty or joint reconstruction: Artificial joints have been developed for the thumb basal joint and the small joints of the fingers as well. Implants are a reasonable alternative to fusion, and in some cases can be used to restore motion to a joint which has been fused.
    • Osteotomy: Osteomy involves cutting bones in order to realign them in a way conducive to pain-free movement. For patients with osteoarthritis, a realignment can reduce wear and tear on cartilage that has been damaged.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory and autoimmune disease that causes the immune system to attack the thin membrane that lines the joints. 

Rheumatoid arthritis is progressive and disabling, and can affect the appearance and the function of the hands and other parts of the body through injury to joints and soft tissue structures. It often deforms finger joints and forces the fingers into a bent position, hampering movement. Rheumatoid arthritis affects 1 in every 100 Americans, and it is three times more common in women than in men.

While many patients experience flares followed by periods of remission, sometimes the disease gets steadily more serious.  Deformity, swelling, erosion of the bone and pain are common symptoms. Patients may also form lumps of tissue, called nodules, on bony protrusions, like the elbow. Occasionally, the disease affects other organs of the body, such as the heart, eyes and lungs. Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic disease, which means there is no cure; however, early and aggressive treatment can put rheumatoid arthritis into remission. 

Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis

If you experience any of the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, it is important to see a rheumatologist to seek an accurate diagnosis and treatment that will slow the progression of the disease. Typical symptoms include:

  • Swelling in and around joints, particularly the hands and feet
  • Pain and stiffness in joints, particularly the hands and feet
  • Warmth in joints
  • Symmetry of the symptoms described above – Rheumatoid arthritis is a symmetrical disease, meaning you will feel symptoms on the same spot on both sides of the body
  • Decreased range of motion
  • Lack of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Anemia
  • A low-grade fever

Treatment for Rheumatoid Arthritis


Medications used to treat rheumatoid arthritis include:

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as Advil, Motrin, Aleve, etc.
  • Corticosteroids such as prednisone
  • Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs), usually methotrexate
  • Biologic agents: a new treatment that can block specific aspects of the immune response

Lifestyle Changes

Lifestyle changes will involve the introduction of a gentle exercise program and education on coping with the limitations caused by this disease. The University of Michigan’s team of rheumatologists and therapists will teach you important rheumatoid arthritis life skills such as using aids for your daily activities, splinting and how to avoid damaging your swollen joints.


If your pain continues, or if non-surgical treatment doesn’t help, we may suggest surgery to you. Our goals will be to reduce your pain, improve your function, repair damage and improve the appearance of your joints.

Surgical treatment may include removing the swollen tissue from the joints or around the tendons, which may reduce pain and prevent more tendon damage. If the tendon has already been damaged, surgery may be done to repair the damage. Rheumatoid nodules may be surgically removed to improve appearance and comfort. In some cases, the knuckles of the hand may be treated by arthroplasty, a procedure where artificial knuckles (made of silicone rubber or other material) are inserted. This may improve the use of the hand and lessen pain. Surgical procedures performed on the rheumatoid hand and wrist are often complex and may require physical and/or occupational therapy.

Surgical procedures for rheumatoid arthritis often require postoperative therapy. The recovery period varies, depending on the procedure. To reduce the risk of complications, it is essential to continue maximum medical management before and after surgery.

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What are the Risk Factors of Arthritis?

You might have seen many of your family member complain about pain & stiffness in their joints. Many say its Arthritis. But what is Arthritis & how it happens?

Arthritis is the swelling and tenderness of one or more of your joints. The main symptoms of arthritis are joint pain and stiffness, which typically worsen with age. The most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

The most common signs and symptoms of arthritis involve the joints. Depending on the type of arthritis you have, your signs and symptoms may include:

  • Pain
  • Stiffness
  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • Decreased range of motion

Risk factors for arthritis include:

  • Family history. Some types of arthritis run in families, so you may be more likely to develop arthritis if your parents or siblings have the disorder. Your genes can make you more susceptible to environmental factors that may trigger arthritis.
  • Age. The risk of many types of arthritis — including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and gout — increases with age.
  • Your sex. Women are more likely than men to develop rheumatoid arthritis, while most of the people who have gout, another type of arthritis, are men.
  • Previous joint injury. People who have injured a joint, perhaps while playing a sport, are more likely to eventually develop arthritis in that joint.
  • Obesity. Carrying excess pounds puts stress on joints, particularly your knees, hips and spine. People with obesity have a higher risk of developing arthritis.

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