Osteoarthritis vs Rheumatoid Arthritis – What’s the Difference?

Different types of arthritis - osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis. Differences between conditions.

Arthritis is a group of more than 100 health conditions that affect the joints in your body. Lots of people in Australia, about 1 in 6, live with some type of arthritis. Two common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Each condition can really change how people live their lives. In this blog, you will read about the different symptoms and risk factors for each condition, and how they are diagnosed and treated.

What are the main differences?


Osteoarthritis is sometimes called “wear and tear” arthritis. It happens when the protective cushion between your bones breaks down over time.

OA often affects joints that bear weight, such as the knees, hips, and spine, but it can also affect the hands.

Symptoms include pain, stiffness, and less movement in the joints.

Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease. It is the result of the body’s immune system attacking its own tissues by mistake.

RA mainly affects the lining of the joints, especially the hands, feet, knees, and hips, but it can affect other organs. It usually affects both sides of the body.

Symptoms include pain, swelling, and inflammation in the joints. It can also cause tiredness and fever.

Healthy knee compared to osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis - differences in joints

What are the risk factors?

Understanding these risk factors can help you to take steps to prevent osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis and make smart lifestyle choices:

Risk Factors Osteoarthritis Rheumatoid Arthritis
Age Risk increases with age. Often starts between 30 and 60 years but can happen at any age.
Gender More likely in women, especially after menopause. More likely in women. Hormonal changes during pregnancy and menopause may increase risk.
Genetics Family history. Family history. 65% of risk is linked to the Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA) gene.
Weight Being overweight puts more stress on the joints and greatly increases risk. Being overweight may increase risk.
Work Jobs involving repetitive stress on joints, such as kneeling and squatting.
Other Previous joint injuries. Some infections and pollutants. Smoking.

How are they diagnosed?

The diagnosis of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis involves different approaches due to the distinct nature of each condition.

Clinical evaluation

For both OA and RA, a clinical evaluation by a health practitioner will involve assessing the joint pain and other specific symptoms associated with each condition, as well as family history.

For OA, the doctor will want to know if you’ve had any previous joint injuries and what your occupation is.

Blood tests

Diagnosis of RA often involves blood tests to check for markers like rheumatoid factor (RF), anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide (anti-CCP) antibodies, and inflammation markers (CRP, ESR).

Medical imaging

For OA, x-rays to look for narrowing of the joint space, bone spurs, and subchondral sclerosis. MIR or CT scans assess joint damage and soft tissue involvement.

For RA, x-rays, ultrasound, or MRI assess joint damage, inflammation, and erosion typical of RA.

Osteoarthritis vs Rheumatoid Arthritis – What’s the Difference? -
X-ray of osteoarthritis of the knee.
Osteoarthritis vs Rheumatoid Arthritis – What’s the Difference? -
X-ray of rheumatoid arthritis in the hands.

How are they treated?

Because they have different causes, the treatment approaches for osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are also different.

Treatment of osteoarthritis

Treatment for OA focuses on managing the symptoms and enhancing joint function. These include:

  • Lifestyle changes like weight management, regular exercise, and joint protection techniques are often recommended.
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers such as paracetamol or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help relieve pain and inflammation.
  • Physical therapy strengthens muscles, improves joint flexibility, and reduces pain.
  • Injections of corticosteroids or hyaluronic acid into the affected joint offer temporary relief.
  • In severe cases where conservative treatments don’t help, surgical options like joint replacement may be considered.

Treatment of rheumatoid arthritis

The aim of RA treatment is to control inflammation, protect joints, and support joint function. These include:
  • Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) like methotrexate are commonly prescribed to lower inflammation and slow disease progression.
  • If conventional DMARDs don’t help, biologic DMARDs that target specific inflammatory molecules may be used.
  • Corticosteroids offer fast relief during flares by reducing inflammation.
  • Physical and occupational therapy enhance joint function and aid in daily independence.
  • Lifestyle adjustments, including exercise and joint protection methods, play a crucial role in RA management.
  • For severe, unresponsive cases, surgery may be necessary to repair or replace damaged joints.

Clinical Trials

Genesis Research Services conducts clinical trials for a range of arthritis conditions, including osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. To view currently recruiting studies or register your interest for future studies, click here or call us on (02) 4985 1860.

References and resources:

  1. Arthritis Australia: https://arthritisaustralia.com.au
  2. Arthritis Foundation: https://www.arthritis.org
  3. Arthritis NSW: https://www.arthritisnsw.org
  4. NIH – National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. “Arthritis and Rheumatic Diseases and Conditions”. 2023. https://www.niams.nih.gov/health-topics/arthritis-and-rheumatic-diseases
  5. Mayo Clinic. “Osteoarthritis – Symptoms & causes”. 2021. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/osteoarthritis/symptoms-causes/syc-20351925
  6. Mayo Clinic. “Rheumatoid arthritis – Symptoms and causes”. 2023. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/rheumatoid-arthritis/symptoms-causes/syc-2035364
Share this story!

Related Posts