What is the Difference between Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis have different causes and effects on the body, yet they often share a common symptom – persistent joint pain.

The joint pain of arthritis can appear as knee or hip pain, hand pain, as well as joint pain in other areas of the body. Symptoms including stiffness and/or swelling in a joint for more than 2 weeks may indicate you have arthritis.

Osteoarthritis is caused by the breakdown and loss of the cartilage that covers and cushions the joints. Primary Osteoarthritis is related to aging – the simple wear and tear we all experience over time. Osteoarthritis can affect multiple joints including the hands, feet, spine and large weight bearing joints.

Rheumatoid Arthritis is a distinctly different disease.  Rheumatoid Arthritis is an autoimmune disease that causes ongoing inflammation of the joints. Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system mistakenly “attacks” the body’s tissues believing there is something wrong with them. Rheumatoid Arthritis not only affects the joints, it can also inflame the tissues around the joints as well as other organs in the body. For this reason, Rheumatoid Arthritis is called a systemic disease meaning it can affect multiple body systems.


Rheumatoid Arthritis most commonly affects the hands and feet first. As the disease progresses, the shoulders, elbows, knees, hips and even jaw and neck can become involved. Unlike Osteoarthritis, the symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis are more likely to affect the same joints on both sides of the body.

How Do I Know Which One I Have?

The most common symptoms of Osteoarthritis include steady or intermittent pain in a joint, stiffness after periods of inactivity, especially sleeping or sitting, swelling or tenderness in a joint or joints and crunching sounds or sensations when moving a joint.

Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis differ from person to person but generally include: Joint tenderness, warmth, and swelling. Both sides of the body are usually affected at the same time. Other symptoms include pain and stiffness in the morning that lasts for more than one hour, fatigue, occasional fever and a general sense of not feeling well.

Although there is no cure for arthritis, there is a wide range of treatment options available, all aimed at managing pain and improving quality of life. Painkillers such as paracetamol , alone or in combination with stronger painkillers can be effective .  NSAIDs (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs) are effective in reducing inflammation at joints.  These include ibuprofen and diclofenac and are available in tablet or gel form. Another gel Flexiseq is a new preparation, which contains tiny spheres called Sequesome vesicles. When applied to the joint these pass through the skin and unto the joint to supplement existing cartilage to cushion joints and provide pain relief.  As with all medication you should consult your pharmacist to ensure that it is suitable for you and to discuss any possible side effects.  Your GP or consultant may prescribe other drugs such as steroids or DMARDs (Disease-Modifying Anti-Rheumatic Drugs)


Eating a balanced diet to maintain a healthy weight will aid the management of arthritis by reducing the pressure and strain on the joints.  Exercise and correct stretching can aid pain relief and decrease joint stiffness.  Supplements such as calcium and vitamin D and fish oils are also available in the pharmacy.

Pharmacists are ideally placed in the community to offer advice and support on your condition and to answer any questions you may have regarding medication. 

A diagnosis of arthritis doesn’t have to mean an end to life, as you know it.  With the appropriate support and small adaptations to your lifestyle, the condition can be well controlled with minimum disruption to your daily routine.


Products described are available at most pharmacies and Gordons Chemists does not endorse any individual product.  Always consult your pharmacist in relation to your individual symptoms.