When it comes to arthritis, one type definitely doesn't fit all. There are dozens of different variations of arthritis, but the two most common types are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid, affecting millions of people a year. What are the differences between the two types of arthritis, and how does your doctor know which one you have?

The main difference between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis is that osteoarthritis is a disease caused by wear and tear while rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammation-based illness. Osteoarthritis involves a breakdown in the cartilage that covers the ends of bones where they meet to form a joint. This cartilage allows for easy and fluid movement, and when it wears away the joint becomes stiffer and more painful to move. Rheumatoid arthritis, on the other hand, is an autoimmune disorder that most often affects the small joints in the hands and feet. The inflammation attacks the joint linings and can cause painful swelling and may eventually result in permanent damage to the bones and joints.

Other differences between the two conditions:

  • Osteoarthritis is much more common than rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Osteoarthritis usually affects people 65 and older; rheumatoid arthritis is most commonly diagnosed between 40 and 60.
  • Osteoarthritis attacks the joints; because it is inflammatory, rheumatoid arthritis may affect other parts of the body such as the heart, lungs, and kidneys.
  • Osteoarthritis most often affects the lower back, hips, knees and feet, as well as the neck and fingers; rheumatoid arthritis goes for the small joints of the hands and feet.
  • Osteoarthritis may affect just one hand or foot; rheumatoid arthritis sufferers often experience symptoms on both sides of their body. If the left hand hurts, often the right hand does also.

On the other hand, the diseases do have similarities. Many sufferers of both conditions report feeling particularly achy in the morning. There is a genetic component to both diseases, although osteoarthritis can also be brought on or worsened by being overweight or by leading an extremely active lifestyle.


Sources: Mayo Clinic, www.mayoclinic.com; Arthritis Foundation, www.arthritistoday.org.