Do You Know the Difference Between RA and OA?

Doctor discussing arthritis complications with older patientArthritis is a condition which affects millions of Americans, but what many people don’t realize is that there are more than 100 different types. Many of these, like rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and osteoarthritis (OA) share similar symptoms, which can make it harder to tell the difference. In this post, you’ll learn how to distinguish between these two common arthritic conditions.

The symptoms of RA and OA will attack the joints, but it would be a mistake to say think of them as very similar:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder
  • Osteoarthritis is a type of degenerative joint disease

What’s the Difference Between The Two?

An autoimmune disease is caused by the immune system when it starts to attack its own healthy tissues. There are a broad range of autoimmune disorders, but in the case of RA, the target of this misguided immune response is the synovium (soft tissue lining the joints). It attacks this tissue just as it would any foreign invader. This causes excess fluids to build up around the affected joint. This produces symptoms such as:

  • Debilitating pain
  • Stiffness (especially in the morning)
  • Inflammation and tenderness

The symptoms of a degenerative joint disease like osteoarthritis attack the joints in a different way. These start to breakdown the shock-absorbing cartilage within the joints. Over time, the bones in the joints can begin to grind together as the cartilage is worn away. This produces a considerable amount of pain, stiffness and inflammation. However, the breakdown of the cartilage has nothing to do with the patient’s immune system.

(No matter what type of arthritis you’ve been diagnosed with, it’s essential that you develop an effective exercise routine as a part of your disease management plan.)

Take a Closer Look at the Symptoms

These two arthritic conditions share a number of the same symptoms, including:

  • Joints that are wracked by searing pain and stiffness
  • An affected area that is tender and warm to the touch
  • Limited range of motion in the joint(s)
  • Symptoms tend to be worse in the morning

Distinguishing Characteristics for RA

Since rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, it means that its symptoms can affect the whole body– not just the joints. Clinical studies on RA patients have shown that their early symptoms could be unrelated to their joints, such as:

  • Muscle aches
  • Low-grade fevers
  • Chronic fatigue

Some people even develop a physical indication known as a rheumatoid nodule (a hard lump that resides underneath the skin around the affected joints). These nodules can be quite painful on their own.

Distinguishing Characteristics for OA

The symptoms of osteoarthritis and other degenerative joint disorders are limited to just the patient’s joints. Some people may develop certain protuberances under the skin around the affected joint. These are not the same as the RA nodules though. OA patients also must contend with things like bone spurs (growths produced when the bones rub together after the cartilage has been depleted).

RA and OA Attack the Joints in Different Fashions

Rheumatoid arthritis tends to develop in the smaller joints first. The pain and stiffness usually begins in the following small joints:

  • Finger joints
  • Wrists
  • Ankles
  • Even the toes

Late stage RA symptoms tend to afflict the larger joints, such as the hips and shoulders. The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis also tend to be symmetrical. This means that if your right wrist is affected, then your left wrist will also develop some stiffness and inflammation.

People living with osteoarthritis do not experience this symptom mirroring. Some people may have severe pain in both knees, but its not the same as with those combating rheumatoid arthritis. The most common joints for OA include:

  • The hips
  • Knees
  • Spine

Treating These Arthritic Conditions

Doctors and rheumatologists have similar goals when it comes to these two forms of arthritis– manage pain and inflammation, while preventing long-term damage to the joints. They must take two different approaches to reach these goals due to the root differences between OA and RA. Treating osteoarthritis often involves a mix of anti-inflammatory medications and physical therapy. Contemporary treatments for rheumatoid arthritis must take the immune system response into account.

Hopefully, this post helped clear up any confusion you may have had regarding these two common diseases. We recommend passing this information along to anyone else who may be interested. There are still plenty of widespread misconceptions surrounding arthritis that need to be dispelled.