What's the difference between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis?

By: HowStuffWorks.com Contributors

Don't confuse the two -- osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are not the same condition. Osteoarthritis is the result of wear and tear on your joints, which causes weakening and deterioration of your cartilage [Mayo Clinic]. Rheumatoid arthritis, on the other hand, is an auto-immune disorder, whereby your body attacks and destroys joint cartilage [NIAMS]. Both conditions, however, share common symptoms, including joint paint, stiffness and swelling.

The risk factors for osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are fairly different. Osteoarthritis is most common in old age; in fact, almost everyone in their golden years will show some sign of osteoarthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis, unlike like osteoarthritis, is not a golden-age condition. The typical age of onset for rheumatoid arthritis is mid-life, although children and adolescents can also develop the condition. Rheumatoid arthritis is generally caused by genetic factors; in fact, there is a particular gene responsible for this auto-immune disorder [NIAMS]. Osteoarthritis is also caused by a genetic predisposition, but other factors also come into play, such as obesity, over-use of the joint and injury [Mayo Clinc]. Both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are more common in women than in men.


Osteoarthritis typically affects the hands, knees, hips, neck and lower back. Rheumatoid arthritis, on the other hand, tends to affect primarily the wrist and finger joints. Interestingly, rheumatoid arthritis is symmetrical in its development: If your right hand has arthritis, so will your left hand. Rheumatoid arthritis also causes other symptoms that are unrelated to joint deterioration, such as fatigue, fever and a vague feeling of sickness. The symptoms of osteoarthritis get progressively worse as you age [Mayo Clinic]. The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, however, can flare up and dissipate. Some people with rheumatoid arthritis experience flare-ups that last a few months or a year [NIAMS].