Arthritis or osteoarthritis: very different diseases

If you have sore joints, you may be wondering whether it’s arthritis or osteoarthritis. Read on to find out how to tell the two diseases apart.

Arthritis: not just one disease

The word “arthritis” is actually a broad term referring to a range of diseases that affect the joints. Arthritic diseases are divided into two groups:

  • Those characterized by inflammation (swelling): for example, rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, and psoriatic arthritis
  • Those where there is little or no inflammation: osteoarthritis (also called arthrosis)

All types of arthritis, whether or not they involve inflammation, are chronic diseases. While medication can lessen their symptoms and sometimes even slow the disease itself, there is no cure.

Rheumatoid arthritis, when the body attacks itself

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is one of the most common forms of inflammatory arthritis. It affects two to three times more women than men.

It is an autoimmune disease, which means the immune system, instead of defending the body against invaders, attacks its own joints, causing swelling in the affected joints.

RA is a systemic disease, i.e., it affects several body organs, not just the joints.

Osteoarthritis, the only non-inflammatory arthritis

Of all the arthritic diseases, osteoarthritis is the most common. The chances of getting osteoarthritis increase with age and, in fact, 80% of people age 75 or over suffer from it.

Osteoarthritis leads to a gradual deterioration of the cartilage that cushions bone joints. Unlike with RA, it is a disease that is limited to the affected joints, and has no impact on the rest of the body.

Rheumatoid Arthritis vs osteoarthritis

CharacteristicOsteoarthritisRheumatoid Arthritis
Main joints affectedHands, knees, hips, feet, lumbar vertebraeWrists, fingers, feet, ankles, neck, shoulders, elbows, hips, knees
Both sides of the body affectedNot necessarily (e.g., only the right hip)Yes (e.g., both hips)
Typical symptomsJoint pain or stiffness that increases with movement

Cracking sound or creaking sensation when using the join

Loss of range of movement (joint doesn’t work as well as it used to)

Swelling in some cases
Joint pain or stiffness often worse in the morning (lasting at least 1 hour)

Inflamed, hot or red joints

Difficulty moving affected joints

Fever, fatigue, weight loss, loss of appetite

Formation of lumps beneath the skin (elbows, hands, or feet)


There are numerous other causes of joint pain, such as injury or overuse. Consult your pharmacist. They can propose tips or over-the-counter medication or refer you to a doctor if they suspect a problem that requires medical attention. Only a doctor can diagnose an arthritic disease.

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