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How Does Rheumatoid Arthritis Differ from Osteoarthritis?

What Is RA?

Rheumatoid arthritis, also known as RA, is a chronic inflammatory condition of the joints. It differs from osteoarthritis in several ways, although the symptoms can be similar.

In this article we will tell you all you need to know about RA, including its symptoms, causes and treatment. Read on to learn more.

What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

RA is one of the most common types of arthritis, alongside osteoarthritis. However, there are several important differences between these two conditions.

Osteoarthritis is caused by wear and tear on the joints over time. Rheumatoid arthritis, on the other hand, is an autoimmune condition. This means that the immune system fails to recognize the body’s tissues and attacks them as if they were an invading pathogen.

In the case of RA, the immune system attacks the joints. It damages the synovium, which is the protective membrane that covers the joints. It can also attack the surrounding cartilage and bones.

When the immune system attacks the joints, it causes inflammation. It is this inflammation that is responsible for the classic symptoms of RA.

Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis

The symptoms of RA are similar to other types of arthritis. However, they are characterized by flare-ups and periods of remission. RA symptoms may come on gradually over several weeks, or very quickly over the course of just a few days.

The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include:

  • Joint pain
  • Stiff joints, especially in the morning or following periods of inactivity
  • Swollen and tender joints
  • Joints that look red or feel hot to the touch
  • Joint deformity and nodules

RA can also cause inflammation elsewhere in the body. This could affect the skin, eyes, blood vessels, heart or lungs. Therefore, people with rheumatoid arthritis may also suffer from:

  • Sore or dry eyes
  • Chest pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue

Causes of Rheumatoid Arthritis

As previously mentioned, RA is an autoimmune disorder. Scientists are still not sure why some people develop these conditions. However, there are several factors that may play a role. These include the following:

  • Being female (women are two to three times more likely to develop RA)
  • Age (most people with RA are in their 60s)
  • Family history
  • History of infection or trauma
  • Smoking
  • Obesity

While many of these factors are unavoidable, you can reduce your risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis by not smoking and maintaining a healthy weight.

Treatment for Rheumatoid Arthritis

Since we still do not fully understand the causes of RA, the condition is difficult to treat at its root cause. Most treatments for rheumatoid arthritis are aimed at relieving symptoms, or dampening the immune response.
Some of the most common treatments for rheumatoid arthritis include:


Patients can use painkillers to manage some of the symptoms of RA. These could be over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen or stronger painkillers such as opioids. However, the risks of opioids are well-known and they are not usually the first choice of RA treatment.

Anti-inflammatory Drugs

Anti-inflammatory drugs include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and naproxen. They can help relieve inflammation, pain and stiffness. However, they can also cause side effects, including gastric bleeding and stomach ulcers when taken for a long time. These risks can be reduced by taking NSAIDs after food.

Steroids are another type of anti-inflammatory medication that some people use to relieve RA symptoms. When taken long-term, they can cause digestive problems, weight gain, high blood pressure, diabetes and a range of other serious side effects.

Disease Modifying Anti-Rheumatic Drugs

Also known as DMARDs, these are medications that are often prescribed for autoimmune conditions such as RA. They work to slow down the progression of the disease and reduce the risk of flare-ups.

DMARD side effects include nausea, diarrhea, reduced appetite, weight loss, headaches and hair loss.

Biological Treatments

These drugs can be used in combination with DMARDs if they have been ineffective on their own. They are given as an injection, and one of the most common side effects is a reaction at the injection site.

These medications may also increase the risk of infections as they reduce activity in the immune system. Nausea, fever and headaches may also occur.

JAK Inhibitors

Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitors are a newer treatment for RA. They are usually prescribed if a patient is unable to take DMARDs or biological agents, or if these treatments have been ineffective.

Other Treatments for Rheumatoid Arthritis

People can also manage the symptoms of RA using therapies such as physical therapy or occupational therapy. Some patients also find complementary therapies such as acupuncture and massage helpful.

Some people recommend eating an anti-inflammatory diet, including plenty of omega-3 fatty acids (found in oily fish, flax seeds and walnuts) alongside whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables. Other RA patients find supplements helpful, although there is little scientific evidence to support their use.


In extreme cases, people with rheumatoid arthritis may need to have surgery to repair damaged joints. However, due to the risks involved, this is usually seen as a last resort.

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