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Understanding Osteoarthritis vs. Rheumatoid Arthritis and their Symptoms

In the United States, approximately 54 million people, or about 23% of the total population, have some form of arthritis. While it’s normal to have an occasional ache or tenderness in your body, living with chronic pain in your joints is not. If left untreated, pain due to arthritis can be debilitating because it can limit your mobility and get in the way of your everyday life.

While both of these chronic diseases involve pain, swelling and inflammation in your body, they are different. Rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis both fit under the umbrella of arthritis, but have different causes, symptoms and treatments. Here’s what you need to know about rheumatoid arthritis vs. osteoarthritis.

What is Osteoarthritis Arthritis?

Osteoarthritis (also known as OA) is the most common form of arthritis and affects approximately 27 million Americans. Osteoarthritis causes inflammation that causes a patient’s cartilage to wear down over time, eventually causing damage to the joint. Over time, tendons and ligaments can stretch and become painful. If the deterioration of the cartilage is severe enough, it can cause the bones to run against each other. Osteoarthritis can affect any joint, but most commonly affects weight-bearing joints, such as the hands, knees, hips and spine.

Symptoms of Osteoarthritis Arthritis

Unfortunately, osteoarthritis is a progressive condition that occurs in five stages. Stage 0 is a normal, unaffected joint. The disease gets more severe in each stage, although not everyone will reach stage 4 of the disease. As this disease progresses, cartilage may become damaged and cracked, causing bone deformities and bumps. Cartilage cannot regenerate after it is broken down.

Common symptoms of osteoarthritis are:

  • – Pain during or after activity
  • – Muscle weakness
  • – Tenderness and discomfort
  • – Joint stiffness and swelling

Osteoarthritis may have the misconception of being an “old person’s disease”, but you can develop it at any point in your life, or not at all.

What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis (also known as RA) is a chronic autoimmune disease that occurs when your body’s immune systems attack its own tissues, causing inflammation. An autoimmune disease means that your body interprets itself as a threat (in this case, joint cartilage) and attacks it. There is little scientific evidence of the exact causes of the disease, but there are known risk factors that may increase your likelihood of developing RA, including age, gender, family history and obesity.

When a patient has rheumatoid arthritis, their immune system’s antibodies attack the smooth lining of their joints, inflaming the tissue. Chronic inflammation causes the tissue to thicken, which is what causes the pain and stiffness associated with this disease. Over time, this can also cause damage to the cartilage, the rubbery connective tissue that protects your bones and keeps joint motion fluid. Without cartilage, you may experience pain from bone on bone contact in your body.    

Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Patients living with arthritis are likely to exhibit different symptoms. Some patients can have chronic, life-long rheumatoid arthritis symptoms that do not seem to go away while others can go into and out of remission. Rheumatoid arthritis is known as a systemic disease, meaning that is can affect different parts of the body and not be limited to a single organ or body part. With rheumatoid arthritis, experiencing inflammation throughout other parts of your body, not just your joints, is common. Inflammation can also affect your blood, eyes, heart, kidneys, lungs, mouth or skin.

According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include:

  • – Joints that are tender and swollen
  • – Stiffness that oftentimes feels worse in the mornings
  • – Fatigue
  • – Fever
  • – Loss of appetite

Symptoms can come and go and range from mild to severe pain. During a remission period, symptoms can disappear completely.

Rheumatoid Arthritis vs. Arthritis: Understanding the Difference

While both diseases may have similarities, there are many differences that distinguish each one from the other. Rheumatoid arthritis is caused by an autoimmune disease, while osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease caused by mechanical wear on your body.

Having pain that is more severe in the mornings, painful joints, stiffness, a limited range of motion and tenderness is common with both diseases. But, a symptom that is unique to rheumatoid arthritis is its occurrence to both sides of the body. For example, with RA, both of your hands or wrists may be symmetrically affected.

If left untreated, both diseases can cause severe damage to your body’s joints. However, rheumatoid arthritis can cause complications to your major organs. For example, inflammation in the eyes can occur from RA, which can lead to eye pain, redness, blurred vision and light sensitivity.

Common risk factors for developing both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis include:

  • Age: The chances of developing both OA and RA increase with age. However, you can develop rheumatoid arthritis at any age.
  • Gender: Women are more likely to develop both types of arthritis.

There is no cure for OA or RA, but a specialist can help manage their symptoms.

Treating Arthritis

Joint damage caused by osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis is not reversible, but fortunately getting the right treatment can help reduce your symptoms and provide you with more comfort. In the case of arthritis, early therapy may lead to better results (milder symptoms, remission, etc.). If you’ve been diagnosed with arthritis, it’s important to connect with a doctor regarding your treatment plan and what medications work best for you. Your doctor will work with you to create a treatment plan to reduce or stop inflammation as quickly as possible to get you feeling better.

If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of arthritis, search PACT’s list of Connecticut based, board-certified family medicine and internal medicine specialists here to find a provider for you and/or your family.

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