How to Diagnose Rheumatoid Arthritis vs. Osteoarthritis

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How to Diagnose Rheumatoid Arthritis vs. Osteoarthritis
Diagnose Rheumatoid Arthritis vs. Osteoarthritis

Sometimes, there is confusion in differentiating between rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. You may think that these two forms of arthritis are similar because they both may cause pain and inflammation of joints, but in fact the similarities end there. To diagnose rheumatoid arthritis versus osteoarthritis, you need to know the different causes and symptoms of these two forms of arthritis.

Skill level:


  1. 1

    Understand that the type of inflammation and cause is different between osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). The deterioration of the cartilage around the joint causes osteoarthritis which is a degenerative joint condition. The breakdown of the cartilage can cause pain, swelling, irritation or spurs. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease which severely affects the synovium (membrane around joints). There are progression stages associated with rheumatoid arthritis that cause inflammation in the synovial membrane which in turn can produce pain and the misalignment of the affected joint.

  2. 2

    Know the different joints affected by these two forms of arthritis. Osteoarthritis can affect all joints but the most affected joints are the hips, knees, spine and feet. You can identify rheumatoid arthritis by the symmetrical (both hands or ankles) swelling pattern of smaller joints like the hands, ankles, knuckles and elbows. Rheumatoid arthritis can affect small joints and body organs but osteoarthritis only affects the body joints and is usually asymmetrical (see Resources).

  3. 3

    Realize that rheumatoid arthritis may develop at any age but often manifests itself in middle age (40 to 60). Note that there are cases of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Osteoarthritis can be the result of the aging process, genes, joint injury or obesity. A problem with the immune system is the main factor for rheumatoid arthritis but there may be other factors like genetics or infections.

  4. 4

    Learn about the symptoms of these two types of arthritis to differentiate between them. The symptoms of osteoarthritis are pain, swollen joints, stiffness, bone spurs and the loss of flexibility. The signs of rheumatoid arthritis are also pain, swelling and stiffness. But there are also others that can include weight loss, fever, fatigue, nodules, weakness and the periodic flare-ups and remissions associated with this disease.

  5. 5

    Get a diagnosis to confirm the type of arthritis and receive the proper treatment. Rheumatoid arthritis can be more serious than osteoarthritis and may require an aggressive treatment plan that can include: non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, immune suppressants, analgesics, TNF alpha inhibitors and possible surgery for very severe cases. Depending on the severity of the osteoarthritis, treatment may include the use of cold or heat packs, physical therapy, over-the-counter pain cream, acetaminophen, pain killers (for serious cases), cortisone shots and joint replacement surgery (for severe cases).

Tips and warnings

  • Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis.
  • Early detection and an aggressive treatment plan for rheumatoid arthritis are important to prevent severe disability.
  • Doctors may use X-rays and blood test to properly diagnose rheumatoid arthritis and you may need to see a rheumatologist.
  • Consult with your doctor for any medical condition and treatment.

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