Rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis – similarities and differences

Last modified: December 11, 2019

Rheumatism and osteoarthritis are two conditions that have many similarities, but also differences. Their common denominator is that they both cause pain and impaired function from the joints. The main difference between rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis is that RA affects the whole body and multiple joints. Osteoarthritis, on the other hand, very often affects just a specific joint. Rheumatoid arthritis is RA for short.

What do rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis entail?

Osteoarthritis is classified nowadays as the most common joint disease in the world. Roughly one person in four over the age of 45 is affected by it in Sweden. However, there are also a large number of hidden cases as most people have not had their joint pain diagnosed. This is because many of those affected believe that the symptoms accompanying osteoarthritis, such as stiff, painful joints, are part and parcel of getting old. This condition can basically affect all the joints in the body and is a lifelong disease that cannot be got rid of. However, there is good treatment available which can ease the difficulties.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a less common inflammatory joint condition that affects multiple joints in the body. It is an autoimmune disease. This means that the body’s own immune system attacks the joint for some reason that is unclear. As rheumatoid arthritis is a systemic disease that affects multiple joints, it generally provides more symptoms than osteoarthritis. They can take the form of generalized pain, more pronounced stiffness, and tiredness. Just like osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic disease that cannot be cured. However, nowadays there is very effective medication available which can very often slow down the disease before the joints become damaged.

What happens with rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis?

In the case of osteoarthritis, the cartilage has broken down. The cartilage is the tissue available at the end of the skeleton parts in the body and provides a gliding surface inside the joint. This breakdown process creates resistance in the joint when it is used. This then causes pain and discomfort. In some cases where the osteoarthritis is far advanced, the shape of the joints can also be modified to become distorted.

Anyone affected by rheumatoid arthritis has chronic inflammation in their joints, which means that the whole joint is breaking down. Therefore, rheumatoid arthritis does not only affect the cartilage. The joints then become swollen and tender, which is known as synovitis. The continuous pain, which is present both at rest and during exertion, may be so intense that anyone affected is prevented from carrying out simple everyday tasks. Anything from getting out of bed to brushing teeth can be difficult to do. It is not uncommon for those affected to feel tired and depressed. Unlike osteoarthritis then, rheumatoid arthritis affects the whole body and not just a single joint.

What to do if you suspect you have osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis

Osteoarthritis very often develops when one or more joints have been subjected to some form of long-term overexertion. This can happen in a number of different ways, for instance, the result of a monotonous movement pattern, previous injuries (post-traumatic osteoarthritis) of if the person affected is overweight. Being overweight means that the body weight the person is carrying is greater than the muscles can manage to bear. We also know that there is a hereditary form of osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis develops at different rates in different individuals, with its symptoms very often emerging in a stealthy manner.

Common symptoms for rheumatoid arthritis generally include painful joints and long-term stiffness in the body, mainly in the morning. Heredity is a common factor with rheumatoid arthritis. Therefore, it is important that anyone who has close relatives who suffer or have suffered from the disease should rigorously follow up any symptoms with a doctor so that any action can be taken at an early stage. This is because if the disease is treated early, it is possible to slow down the symptoms and prevent any damage to the joints.

If you suspect that you are affected by one of these conditions, you should go to your health center. Rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis are what are known as clinical diagnoses that are made by a doctor or physiotherapist. A clinical diagnosis means that the diagnosis is mainly made on the basis of the patient’s typical medical history. Blood tests and an X-ray are only used to confirm the diagnosis.

How to treat rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis?

Anyone who has had their diagnosis confirmed may initially feel slightly depressed as there is no specific cure for any of these diseases. However, there is a treatment plan available, with the treatments for both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis being similar to each other.

Exercise is the most important form of treatment by far. It is important that those affected are involved in some form of physical activity, even if it causes them pain. This activity will preferably involve various exercises from a specially adapted exercise program. Anti-inflammatory products (also known as NSAIDs) may be given to treat the most intense pain. However, they should preferably not be taken for a long time. They should only be used to help get through the worst periods of pain. It is also a good idea to ease the strain on the affected joints by using different types of assistive devices. This includes, for example, orthoses, splints, and inserts.

You can find more information about rheumatism here.