Home / Osteoarthritis vs Rheumatoid Arthritis – Understanding the Differences

Osteoarthritis vs Rheumatoid Arthritis – Understanding the Differences

Osteoarthritis vs Rheumatoid Arthritis – Understanding the Differences

Arthritis is an umbrella term encompassing a variety of joint-related conditions. Among them, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are the most common forms with similar symptoms, such as joint stiffness and pain. However, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are fundamentally different in terms of progression, causes, and management strategies. Through this blog, we’ll help you understand the main differences between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as shed light on the distinct treatments to manage these conditions.

Let’s decode: Osteoarthritis

Commonly referred to as “wear and tear” arthritis, this degenerative joint disease is the result of the breakdown of protective joint cartilage that cushions the ends of bones, along with the underlying bone. It can occur due to aging, joint injuries, or any other triggers that put extra pressure (stress) on the joints.

Osteoarthritis typically affects the joints asymmetrically. It may manifest in one knee or knee, but not the other corresponding limb. As the condition advances, the patient can experience severe joint pain, reduced mobility, and localized pain in affected joints. 

The symptoms of osteoarthritis tend to develop gradually as the disease advances. They include:

  • Persistent joint pain
  • Joint stiffness
  • Reduced range of motion
  • Grating or grinding sensation in the affected joint(s)
  • Swelling
  • Weakening of muscles surrounding the joint(s)
  • Bony spurs or enlargements around the affected joint(s)
  • Sense of instability or giving way in the affected joint(s)

Let’s decode: Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory condition that typically affects the lining of the membranes surrounding the joints. This lining is known as the synovium. As an autoimmune disease, RA causes the immune system to mistakenly attack healthy tissues in the synovium, leading to inflammation, joint damage, as well as systemic effects.

RA is characterized by the symmetrical pattern of joint involvement. So, if a joint on one side of the body is impacted, the corresponding joint on the other side will also be affected. Below are some of the most common symptoms of RA:

  • Morning stiffness, often lasting longer than 30 minutes

Stiffness can also occur after long periods of inactivity during the day

  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Joint pain and swelling
  • Joint warmth and redness
  • Joint deformities
  • Weight loss
  • Reduced range of motion
  • Rheumatoid nodules (firm, pea-sized lumps under the skin typically near affected joints)
  • Anaemia

Some of the systemic symptoms of RA include:

  • Vision problems (dry eyes, dry mouth)
  • Respiratory challenges
  • Neurological challenges (weakness in extremities, numbness, tingling, etc.)
  • Cardiovascular issues
  • Loss of appetite

Differences between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis

Let’s look at the differences between the two conditions. 

Causes and underlying mechanisms

Osteoarthritis is primarily a degenerative condition that develops due to the gradual breakdown of joint cartilage. It typically occurs due to wear and tear which could be age-related or stress (on the joint) induced. Other triggers include obesity, joint injuries, and genetic predisposition (family history).

RA is an autoimmune condition whose exact cause is unknown. However, it is believed that RA may be triggered by a combination of environmental, genetic, and hormonal factors.


The symptoms of osteoarthritis are typically localized to the affected joints only. Pain and stiffness in joints, and decreased range of motion are the most common symptoms. Pain in osteoarthritis may be aggravated by excess activities that put stress on the joints. However, the pain can be relieved by sufficient rest

On the other hand, RA’s symptoms are morning stiffness, symmetrical joint pain, and swelling. RA also has systemic repercussions, such as fever, weight loss, and fatigue. Joint pain in RA can be constant and can affect multiple joints at the same time.

Joint appearance on imaging

Osteoarthritis is seen as the narrowing of the joint space, along with the formation of osteophytes (bone spurs), as well as cysts in the bone. These changes are the result of gradual wear and tear of the joint.

RA, on the other hand, shows up on X-rays and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans in the form of joint erosion, joint space narrowing, and rheumatoid nodules. 

Disease progression

Osteoarthritis is a slow progressing condition, often involving periods of stability. These periods are punctuated by instances of worsening symptoms. 

RA is a progressive disease that results in joint damage and deformity. In order to prevent irreversible joint damage, early intervention is absolutely vital.

Treatment options

The primary objective of managing osteoarthritis is relieving pain and supporting joint function. Typically, this involves pain relievers, joint injections, weight management, assistive devices, and physical therapy to strengthen the surrounding muscles. In severe cases of osteoarthritis, doctors may even recommend joint replacement surgery.

RA management is essentially centred around suppressing the inflammatory response of the immune system. Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), anti-inflammatory drugs, and other biologic drugs are most commonly prescribed. Additionally, lifestyle modifications and physical therapy are critical features of RA management. 

Stem cell therapy at Plexus

At Plexus, we offer customised regenerative rehabilitation programs for both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. In the case of the former, mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) are injected into the patient’s body. These cells assume the function of damaged cells in the cartilage. Over time, they multiply and grow into tissue, and eventually cartilage. Thus, new and healthy cartilage is generated, reducing friction between the joints. 

Stem cell therapy for rheumatoid arthritis involves using MSCs to reduce inflammation, release anti-inflammatory factors, modulate the immune response, regulate immune cell activity, and promote joint tissue repair.

Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are distinct conditions. However, both can have a debilitating effect on the body. For this very reason, early detection and diagnosis can facilitate early intervention and appropriate treatment methods. If you or your loved one experience any of the symptoms (or even a combination) mentioned in the earlier sections of this blog, please consult your doctor right away.

Catch it early. Keep it at bay!

If you wish to know more about our regenerative rehabilitation for osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, reach out to us today.


Which is more serious, osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis?

Due to its systemic effects, rheumatoid arthritis is considered more serious than osteoarthritis. Having said that, both conditions need intervention at the earliest to delay joint deformities.

Does rheumatoid arthritis turn into osteoarthritis?

Typically, no. However, if left untreated, the inflammation caused by rheumatoid arthritis can increase the wear and tear of joint cartilage, leading to osteoarthritis.

How do I know it’s osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis?

Osteoarthritis joint pain is isolated to a joint on one side of the body, such as the knee, fingers, hips, and spine. Rheumatoid arthritis joint pain is characterised by feeling symptoms on the same points (joints) on both sides of the body.

Can rheumatoid arthritis be cured?

As a progressive autoimmune condition, rheumatoid arthritis can be managed through disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), anti-inflammatory drugs, and other biologic drugs.

What is the most painful type of arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is generally regarded as the most painful type of arthritis.

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